Now is the summer of our disconnect

First they came for Alex Jones, but I wasn’t an alt-right gasbag

by Geoff Olson

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” wrote Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906. Not a line you encounter often in today’s culture of snark. I doubt it’s ever graced the message feed of President Twitter Thumbs or brightened the alt-radio rants of his bilious, bellowing advocate, Alex Jones. Or decorated placards of protestors wanting University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson packed off to a gulag in Sudbury.

Speaking of Alex Jones, his online portal InfoWars got the boot this August from Apple, YouTube, Facebook, and other social media platforms.

“InfoWars is the tip of a giant iceberg of hate and lies that uses sites like Facebook and YouTube to tear our nation apart. These companies must do more than take down one website. The survival of our democracy depends on it, “ said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Twitter’s on it. In August, the social media platform suspended numerous accounts associated with the Proud Boys, a right-wing group represented at last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and have turfed others of a similar stripe.

Hooray, right? Hang on.

I don’t feel for flagged confederates, and I was never won over by Alex Jones’ foghorn freak-outs about “Pizzagate,” Hollywood Illuminati, and government putting chemicals in juice boxes to turn children gay. It’s all well and good when the mike is grabbed from someone you reject. But what about when it’s from someone you endorse?

A sweep is underway online, taking out alternative voices from both ends of the political spectrum. Social media accounts of leftist activists are being scrubbed across Facebook, Twitter and Youtube and other platforms. BDS supporters and feminist videobloggers are as much fair game as white supremicists.

The recent Twitter purge included Scott Horton, the new editorial director of Aussie leftist blogger Caitlin Johnstone was also banned by the bluebird of hypertext (and then unbanned after a backlash from followers) for “abusing” US senator John McCain.

Brian Feldman of New York Magazine argues the vector for this pattern is no further than your iPhone. “While Facebook and YouTube and Spotify can all cite hate speech or policy infractions as their reasoning publicly, the unspoken reason is that to not follow Apple’s lead could get their own apps booted from the App Store. Federal law shields platforms from responsibility for what users post; Apple’s policies don’t.”

The mission creep of policed speech is likely to move the online world closer to the manufactured consent that’s a signature of traditional, plutocrat-controlled media. As MIT Media critic Chomsky observed, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…”

So don’t applaud the InfoWars implosion too enthusiastically. As one anonymous online commentator put it with devastating precision, the lesson the left should take from the Jones Affair “is that if you’re organizing on social media platforms you’re building movement on a trapdoor that will open beneath your feet the moment you become a threat.” (Take note, pipeline protestors organizing through FaceSpook.)

Meanwhile, President Trump continues to demean the NYT, Washington Post, CNN et al as “fake news.” Even a stopped clock is right twice a day: one recent example of a thoroughly debunked mainstream story is the chemical gas attack in Douma Syria, attributed to Assad’s forces.

Conversely, the journals above call out Trump-endorsing media organizations like Breitbart and Fox News for trafficking in “alt-facts.” And again, hardly without reason.

The result is a convenient binary in people’s minds of genuine versus bogus news organizations, with opposing sides screaming ‘fake’ and demanding censorship. (In an August poll, 43 percent of self-identified Republicans said that they believed “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behaviour.”)

So we can hardly lay all the moves for restricted speech – from university “social justice warriors” to Republican and Democratic Congressthings to the Troller-in-Chief – on the doorstep of Apple.

This is a much bigger story than Tim Cook’s bottom line. My ‘aha’ moment came with notice of European publishers’ effort to censor a Canadian advocacy group for Internet free speech. “A corporation has issued a “takedown notice,” using overreaching U.S. copyright rules to demand that our Save the Link campaign website be blocked from Google search results… That’s right – they’re trying to censor our efforts to stop censorship,” writes Laura Tribe at OpenMedia.

In recent weeks, according to Tribe, “dozens of free-speech advocates, journalists, legal academics, and other experts have been the target of similar harassing takedown notices – all aimed at shutting down debate about free speech online.”

The moves to curb free speech are suddenly coming in force from government and corporate bodies on both sides of the Atlantic – a pattern that may confound even the staunchest of coincidence theorists.

Is this just the wider zeitgeist of “I disapprove of what you say, and I will defend to your demise my right to silence you,” or a pan-global, top-down effort to corral free speech on the Internet for the sake of profits and/or social control?

Facebook banned the leftist Latin America news site Telesur without explanation, and recently decreed a partnership with the shady Atlantic Council to fight “disinformation” on its platform. Zuckerberg’s pet panopticon is reportedly giving users a reputation score, rating them on their trustworthiness (shades of China’s Orwellian “Sesame Credit”).

“In a corporatist system of government, wherein government power and corporate power are not separated in any meaningful way, corporate censorship is state censorship,” writes the Twitter-banned-and-unbanned Caitlin Johnstone.

With many websurfers focused on a giant blimp going down in flames – Alex Jones – the smoke has conveniently shrouded smaller lights going out. Oh, the humanity, indeed.

photomontage by Tom Voydh

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