An opinionated FAQ about Facebook’s censorship of the alleged “far right”
A lot of people understand neither free speech nor what the far right is. Here’s a beginner’s guide.
Yesterday, Facebook and Instagram, which are owned by the same company, announced a purge—a fair description—of accounts by a roster of famous right-wing figures as well as Louis Farrakhan. What are we to make of this?
Who was banned?
The names include
- Alex Jones: both popular and much-reviled right-wing conspiracy theorist, previously banned from various other platforms
- Infowars: Alex Jones’ news/info company; in addition, reportedly, 22 Infowars groups or pages were removed from Facebook, as of last month
- Reportedly, any account that shares Infowars links will be summarily banned from Facebook
- Paul Joseph Watson: British YouTube video star specializing in ironic take-downs of the far left; has been employed by Infowars
- Milo Yiannopoulos: another Briton, flamboyant gay conservative/libertarian who specializes in provoking the left
- Laura Loomer: a right-wing commentator and activist maybe best known for disrupting a production of Julius Caesar in which Caesar is portrayed by a Donald Trump lookalike
- Paul Nehlen: an “America first” right-wing political candidate who has tweeted many anti-Semitic remarks
- Louis Farrakhan: leader of the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim leader famous for anti-Semitic, anti-white, and homophobic remarks
One thing all of these except Farrakhan have in common is that they’ve made anti-Muslim (or at least anti-Muslim extremist) comments, but more about that below.
Why were these people/groups banned?
The specific reasons are not clear and have not been made (fully) public. The Verge reported rather cryptically, and uncritically, that Facebook said the banned accounts “violated its policies against dangerous individuals and organizations.” I wasn’t able to locate the Facebook press release.
The Verge also reported this, without naming a specific source other than “the company”:
But the company did point to some of the actions leading up to the accounts’ removal:
* First in December and again in February, Jones appeared in videos with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Facebook has designated McInnes as a hate figure.
* Yiannopoulos publicly praised McInnes and British far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who Facebook has designated as a hate figure.
* Loomer appeared with McInnes in December, and more recently declared her support for far-right activist Faith Goldy, who was banned after posting racist videos to her account.
This is bizarre; rather than cite specific things the banned figures said or did that are obviously bigoted, or couching their explanation in terms of specific terms of service, Facebook apparently thought it was relevant to point out that the banned people associated with or praised people like Gavin McInnes, designated as “a hate figure,” and “far-right activists” Tommy Robinson and Faith Goldy. It looks like guilt by association.
Wait. Before you go on, explain: Why is that bizarre?
Because it specifically eschews any attempt to pin a particular case to a particular objective standard. It’s fundamentally vague and thus fundamentally unfair. If you have an association with or even merely express approval of a verboten figure, you yourself can, apparently, be banned. What if I say I’ve liked some of Paul Joseph Watson’s videos? (I do.) Does that mean I should be banned? (Too late, I quit Facebook, but still.) Maybe more to the point, does it mean that I agree with everything that Watson has ever said? Of course not.
Facebook apparently called these people “right-wing.” What really does “right-wing” mean, anyway?
Prepare yourself for a brief lecture about political terms.
“Right-wing” has two very different meanings in American political discourse. On the one hand, it means “conservative”: being supportive of traditional views on social issues, especially Christian values interpreted fundamentally, of devotion to country and national interests, and of relatively unregulated free markets. In general it means traditional (formerly bipartisan) American political values of small government and individual liberty, but within some religious constraints.
By the way, libertarians are sometimes called “right-wing” presumably because they favor unregulated free markets, but sometimes they’re called “left-wing” because they also support social liberalism. Go figure.
On the other hand, “right-wing” also is taken to mean “tending toward fascism of the Nazi sort.” Thus, some progressives want you to believe that the National Socialist Party of Germany is supposed to represent the values of American conservatives, just taken to an extreme. There are a few problems with that:
- The Nazis believed in giant, ever-present government, regulating everything, i.e., totalitarianism, as well as a massive social welfare state. It wasn’t the National Socialist party for nothing. Mussolini and Hitler both began their political careers as, and thought of themselves as, socialists. They both became strongly anti-Communist, but the conflict was an internecine left-wing one.
- Nazis hated the idea of a free market, and many Nazi leaders were hostile to or deeply skeptical of Christianity (some were devout, to be sure).
- Racism is not a uniquely conservative value; extreme racism of the fascist stripe is not a particularly conservative value. In the U.S., some of the most open of our racists also express conservative values, and progressives have made hay of this fact. But in the past, some of the most racist and eugenicist people in the history of the U.S. were in favor of welfare state and even socialist policies. Remember Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Democrat late of West Virginia and a former KKK member who recruited Klansmen? He wasn’t the only one. And today, anti-semitic (and anti-white, and arguably anti-Asian) racism can still be found on the left.
- In short, fascism was a racist and nationalist perversion of an already perverted doctrine: imperialist internationalist socialism.
By the way, I’m not meaning to apologize for those American conservatives who (openly or not) are racists, who do want to wield the awesome power of the state to repress their enemies, who hate foreigners on principle, etc. Indeed such people really are like Nazis. They’re not nice and I don’t support them at all.
The problem is that most mainstream conservatives are not particularly racist—even if they support systems that happen to favor their own “white privilege,” which is another issue—they are not imperialistic nationalists, and they sure as hell could not entertain anything so horrific as a genocide. And, of course, they don’t support socialism, but then the left probably doesn’t mean to imply that they do.
So much for “right-wing.”
What does this term “far-right extremist,” that I hear bandied about so much, really mean?
Those bandying it are making a spurious accusation of guilt by association. When leftists calls a conservative “far right,” or a “far-right extremist,” they blur the distinction and commit the fallacy of ambiguity, i.e., they use word “right” in two different senses in order to tar merely strong conservatives with the brush of fascism. Their dirty little implied argument is this:
- Paul Joseph Watson (just for example) isn’t just conservative, he’s extremely conservative.
- That means he’s both far right, and extreme. So he’s a far-right extremist.
- The Nazis and the KKK were far-right extremists.
- Therefore, Paul Joseph Watson is like a Nazi or KKK, or ideologically aligned with them. (Probably punchable!)
This sort of thing is not just fallacious, it’s libelous.
When you want to refer to an American or British conservative as being unremittingly so, but not a fascist and still within the broadly classical liberal Anglo-American tradition as it has been handed down to us in the early 21st century, you can call the person an “arch conservative” or in Britain maybe a “staunch Tory.”
You would call such a person “far right” only if you wanted to falsely, libellously imply that the person is fascistic. “Far-right extremist” merely compounds the libel.
But today’s American conservatives are fascistic, right?
As my Irish friends say, go feck off. Re-read the previous two answers.
No, they aren’t. Some good friends and family members of mine, whom I love, are conservative. They hate the elements of fascism listed above as much as anyone. I personally have a lot in common with them, although being an agnostic and rather more principled on issues of liberty, I think I’m closer to the libertarian outlook. If you say conservatives are fascistic, you’re insulting my friends.
But libertarians are crypto-fascists, too. They use talk of liberty and free speech as a cover for their insidious racist views. Right?
You need to feck off even harder, you ignorant twit.
No, you can’t get any farther from a fascist than a libertarian. Libertarians favor individual rights rooted in respect for our inherent value and autonomy, love minimal government, and hate racism. Fascists favored huge, powerful governments, didn’t give a fig for individual rights, and were totalitarians and racists. Libertarians hate war generally, but they especially hate wars of aggression and even of intervention (such as in Iraq and Syria). Fascists are extremely jingoistic nationalists and imperialists. Libertarians tend to be very tolerant of foreigners and many of them support open borders, and the idea of empire-building strikes them as abhorrent.
In fact, historically straight-up socialists have had a hell of a lot more in common with socialists of the National Socialist variety. Yes, really.
Fine, but aren’t the above-listed people actually far-right in the bona fide fascist sense?
I don’t know all of them, so I can’t tell you. Here are a few comments.
Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist type. I have met his ilk before; possibly you have as well. He lacks judgment. He does seem to be quite conservative in the American sense. He’s said some things that are extremely insensitive on almost anybody’s view. All that said, I haven’t seen much evidence that he’s a fascist per se. He’s a nut. There’s a difference. All fascists are nuts, but not all nuts are fascists.
I like Paul Joseph Watson’s videos about architecture and his pessimistic takes on demise of Western (not to say white) civilization. He’s also quite fun to watch when he takes down left-wing inanities. He pulls no punches, and he’s probably said some things that I wouldn’t approve of; but then, we all have said things I wouldn’t approve of. I see zero evidence that he’s a fascist or on the “far right” in that sense. He strikes me as being libertarian, but I’m not sure. Maybe conservative.
Milo Yiannopoulos is “provocative” and comes across as an insensitive asshole, especially to the left; he makes shocking personal attacks sometimes, which is probably the main reason he is now persona non grata. The whole incident in which he seemed to apologize for the priest who molested him was quite creepy. But beyond that, Milo is an incisive libertarian type; I don’t think it’s quite right to call him conservative. I’m quite a bit nicer than he is, but I have agreed with a lot of stuff he’s said. So have plenty of conservatives and libertarians who have come to watch him. Neither he nor they are fascists. (He’s a flamboyant British gay man with a black boyfriend, for god’s sake.)
Laura Loomer: I don’t really know who she is. Never watched or read anything by her.
Paul Nehlen: Ditto. I didn’t know of him before his ban. I read a few things like this that give what looks like rather good evidence that he’s a vicious anti-semite. He might very well be a bona fide fascist, for all I know. I’m not a fan.
Louis Farrakhan: America’s crazy black uncle. Keep America weird. Let Louis be Louis.
So maybe there’s one “far right” figure, in the sense of fascist, among them, unless you also count Farrakhan, most of whose political views are pretty close to historical fascism as far as I can tell. The rest are very loud activist types with large to enormous followings that the Establishment wants to squelch. That’s really why they were banned. Not because they really are fascist types.
Besides, I don’t think we should ban fascists from our largest platforms. Maybe from smaller ones, sure. I reserve the right to ban fascists from this blog. But when it comes to larger platforms, to “the public square,” I’m a free speech absolutist.
But wait. At least they’re Islamophobic, i.e., anti-Muslim bigots, right?
I don’t know any of their views on Islam well enough to say. Disliking mass immigration by certain people who avowedly have an “extreme” politico-religious view, i.e., those who (like maybe 44% of European Muslims) declare they want to turn European nations into religious (Sharia) states, isn’t necessarily bigoted. You can be open to friendship and cultural exchange with radically different cultures without wanting your culture to be transformed into those other cultures. Religion matters a lot. Opposing immigration by moderate Muslims (like Westernized Turks) does strike me as bigoted, though.
I think some resentful and stupid conservatives really might be personally bigoted against Muslims generally, so I can’t really say in any one case. I’ve had moderate Muslim friends and family members; I don’t support any ethnic or religious bigotry.
Official U.S. immigration policy (last time I checked) also officially excludes Communists from immigrating. Did you know that? I’m all in favor of excluding them. Communists are an influence we don’t need. But I’ve had Communist friends.
OK, then, with that background about the political labels: Did Facebook and Instagram violate the above-listed people’s free speech, or did they not? Were theycensored?
No, not in the sense in which the term is understood in American jurisprudence. As silly-clever progressives will never tire of reminding you, the First Amendment does say that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, and therefore, no company can violate your free speech rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.
But yes, in a broader moral sense. Americans seem to have a huge blind spot when it comes to the topic of free speech, forgetting that the right was discussed long before the United States existed, and that it was applied to the church as well as the state. American constitutional jurisprudence does not exhaust all there is to say about free speech. OK? So get off your high horse there.
What’s the case that Facebook did violate free speech rights in a broader sense? Well, it’s this: Facebook and Instagram have become massively powerful and influential networks, in some ways more powerful than many governments. They serve all of humanity. They are among the main fora whereby civil discourse—including political discourse—takes place. They are the public square of the 21st century.
We all ought to have the right—the moral right, if not the political right—to participate in this public square. If you’re excluded from it, how do you exercise your necessary, essential democratic rights of participating in public deliberation?
Of course, this isn’t to say that others must be forced to listen to you. I should be able to block you quickly and easily if I personally don’t want to listen to you. I have absolutely no problem about blocking people who treat me disrespectfully. I have an absolute right to block myself from hearing you, but not to block others from hearing you.
And yes, those blocked people were also censored. Not all censorship is done by government. Churches, schools, corporations, publications, libraries, and other organizations with authority over what people can say and hear can practice censorship of various kinds. Of course, the most dangerous and objectionable kind of censorship is done by the government. Never forget that. I am much more worried about censorship by governments in Europe and Canada, and future censorship by the American federal and state government, than I am by any corporate censorship.
Should we be surprised by Facebook’s action?
Hell no. Silicon Valley and Facebook in particular have been preparing us for this for a few years now, having banned many conservative accounts and repeatedly justified their stances, albeit in a dishonest, mealy-mouthed and wrong-headed way. I suppose it is surprising to a degree, however, whenever standards are shifted, as they have been. How far are these people capable of going? Pretty far. The ultimate answer might surprise even me.
Does anyone actually support these people being banned?
Oh yeah. Lots and lots. It’s rather scary just how popular the ban is among the left and much of the Establishment commentariat. Who knew just how repressive the left would be if given the power? (Answer: many of us.)
Should Facebook and other Big Tech be regulated?
No. The government dictating to them how they should run the public square entails that the government will ultimately run the public square. We should eschew that idea, as attractive as it might be as long as “our people” are in power, for the same reason we should eschew the idea of government-run news media: Anything potentially so powerful is much too easily corrupted and becomes a honeypot for would-be criminal masterminds and dictators.
At least with the free market, we have the opportunity to seek out better ways to organize ourselves if we find ourselves excluded from biased forums. How long do you think the likes of Facebook will enjoy their hegemony if they continue to behave this way? As long as the rest of us have the means and freedom to organize independently, then not too bloody long. People like freedom and fairness, it turns out.
Should the banned people sue Facebook for defamation?
Maybe. I’m not sure. It’s an interesting idea.
So what the hell should we do?
Decentralize social media and get behind a coming Declaration of Digital Independence. Don’t worry too much. It’s OK. It’ll happen. I have very good reason to think it will. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s coming. This is one reason why both Facebook and Twitter have made rumblings in the direction of decentralizing social media. They know they have to get out front of the movement. They know it’s coming.
So Larry, does this mean you’re going to delete your Facebook account?
Go and do the same. Facebook must be put out of business.
I’m serious. Please delete your Facebook account. First, urge your FB friends to do the same. If you support free speech (and privacy!) and want to send a message to our would-be corporate overlords, you must know by now that it’s the right thing to do.