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Artillery Row

The black hole of online censorship

The removal of Parler from app stores has made it clear that online opinions exist at the sufferance of those providing the soap box

There has never been a perfect public space; the agora of ancient Athens was only open to men, and those harvesting the coffee beans never had the chance to enter the coffee houses favoured by enlightenment thinkers. But at a time when we are barred from pontificating about politics over a pint or at a public meeting, social media platforms are a lifeline to the marketplace of ideas. This week, the banning of sitting President Trump from Twitter and the removal of social networking site Parler from Amazon, Apple and Google have made it clear that online opinions exist at the sufferance of those providing the soap box.

Parler has a reputation as a cesspit of hatred against anyone who isn’t a gun totin’ US right-winger

Inevitably, social media platforms come to mirror the values of their founders. Despite hang-wringing about diversity in their workforce, the monocultural background of the Silicon Valley based technocrats has led to stagnation of discourse on mainstream sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Those who ask awkward questions, people who for example might consider the mental health impact of lockdown as grave as the coronavirus, have been squeezed off YouTube and locked out of Facebook. Whether users are in Tunbridge Wells or Timbuktu, should they anger the gods of Twitter or Facebook by disobeying US-centric community guidelines users will risk being cast out onto the virtual heath.

The spaces that exist outside of the mainstream sites have a distinctly frontiers feel, sheltering everyone from dissident feminists and lockdown sceptics, to QAnon conspiracists. Parler is one such site, with community guidelinesdrawn from classic liberalism it is neither explicitly left nor right. The stated purpose of Parler is to create a “nonpartisan public square” to encourage “polite discourse among people with differing life experiences, and viewpoints.”

It is clear that a majority of users do not embody these enlightenment values, and Parler has a reputation as a cesspit of hatred against anyone who isn’t a gun totin’, gum-chewin’ US right-winger. But this is neither the fault of right-wingers nor Parler’s owners; the blame lies with the totalitarian tendencies of the mainstream left and the technocrats who enable them. If mainstream sites refuse to allow a plurality of viewpoints, is it any surprise that right-wingers have colonised sites like Parler which have lax moderation?

Despite the refined sensibilities of moderators, social media remains saturated with pornography

Online existence is particularly precarious for those who have an interest in women’s rights. Mindful of the “community guidelines”, should a feminist on Facebook dare to call a male rapist who identifies as a woman a ‘man’ she risks being reported and booted from the site. Despite the refined sensibilities of moderators, social media remains saturated with pornography and Twitter acts as a funnel to “adult entertainment sites” like Only Fans. Arguably, this also reflects the biases of social media’s founders. Support for the sex industry is a space where the censorious left and libertarian right now converge and unsurprisingly pornography is a staple of both mainstream and alternative platforms.

Freedom of expression is patchily applied by the woke left. Paris Lees, a journalist, transgender activist and sex worker rights advocate was delighted with the decision to kick Trump off Twitter, telling 83.6k followers: “It’s not just Donald Trump who is to blame for whipping up this violence but every right-wing, centrist and supposedly ‘progressive’ pundit in the US and UK who’ve spent years turning a blind eye to rising hate or indeed defending it in the name of ‘free speech’ and ‘both sides’.”

Lees is not alone, on social media there are a cadre of left-leaning journalists who are celebrating the shutting down of free speech. It seems it is not just the right who are fair game, building the pyre ever higher even those shifty centrists and not quite on message progressives apparently don’t deserve a voice.

In 2018 women’s rights campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen was permanently banned from Twitter for her belief that it is impossible for humans to change sex. She turned to Parler to express herself and told me:

I’m frankly astounded at the lack of foresight of those celebrating the grip Big Tech has on speech, and the drawing of Parler’s last breath. It cannot be beyond the wit, even of those embedded in the critical thought vacuum of the left, that preventing people from talking is a bad thing. I cannot recall such calls for prevention of the visual records of sexual abuse and trafficking, euphemistically called pornography. We can’t meet in real life whatever our opinions are, and now unless they are okayed by technocrat billionaires we can’t even talk online.

Censorship online has created a black hole into which reason, goodwill and tolerance have been pulled

The woke left is entranced by a version of “fun feminism” that seems to involve putting half-dressed fat women on the cover of magazines, not just those who are size 6. It has about as much depth as Emma Watson’s lip gloss. Unfun feminists (those of us who believe in women’s liberation) are almost universally sneered at as angry harridans with all the sex appeal of a well-worn Birkenstock. As such it has been relatively easy to take away our platform, which was only granted after centuries of social and political struggle.

M.K. Fain, a feminist technologist who created the social media site Spinster, has long been battling censorship by the tech giants. Reflecting on the recent decision to remove Parler, a site of which she is broadly critical, Fain told me:

“this has finally demonstrated to the world how much power companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon have over our means of communication. Free software activists have been ringing the alarm bells for years. My own app, Spinster, was removed from the Google Play Store in 2019 and our request for appeal ignored to this day.”

Censorship online has created a black hole into which reason, goodwill and tolerance have been pulled. The inevitable consequence will be further polarisation and radicalisation of extremists of all types.

It is telling that on mainstream woke social media sites the Chinese government is free to put out propaganda about the Uighurs, pornography is abundant and threats of violence from right-thinking lefties to users who step out of line are de rigueur. The left-wing censorship of right-wing voices online doesn’t come with sharable photos of mobs storming government buildings, but make no mistake, its threat to democracy will be longer lasting.

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