One of the crucial debates in the modern online space in recent years has been about the limits of permitted speech. While the First Amendment protects the rights of Americans to speak their mind, those of us living in Europe and much of the rest of the world are increasingly subjected to restrictions on what we are and aren’t allowed to say.
In 2016, the British police detained and questioned 3,300 people for saying the “wrong” thing on social media. A recent example of this style of policing is the ex-cop who was told by the police that he needed to “check his thinking” after he retweeted an offensive limerick. He has brought a case against the police and has launched a crowdfunder to pay his costs.
Traditionally, “hate speech” has been understood to mean words aimed at stirring hatred and violence towards members of various protected groups. But today hate speech means whatever tech giants want it to mean.
Earlier this year, Francis Foster and I interviewed transgender TV presenter India Willoughby about life as a trans woman for our YouTube show, TRIGGERnometry. As with all our interviews, the idea was for two comedians to speak to someone on one side of a contentious debate in a calm, reasonable way and inject a bit of levity and humour into the conversation. We found the discussion interesting and productive.
In keeping with the spirit of our show, last week we invited someone from the other side of the debate, Posie Parker, a gender-critical ex-feminist, to give us her perspective. The discussion was equally productive even though her take on some issues seemed a bit intransigent to us. We pushed back on a number of her arguments. The discussion was civil, entertaining, funny and informative.
Within hours of being released, the video was watched by over 35,000 people, many of whom actually expressed frustration with us as interviewers for challenging Posie too much!
However, 24 hours later we received a notification informing us that the video had been deleted by YouTube because it constituted “hate speech that incites hatred or violence.” This could not be further from the truth. Indeed, India Willoughby, our transgender guest, who described Posie as “vile,” immediately tweeted a message of support and said the video should not have been taken down.
In the ensuing storm of complaints from our fans and neutral observers, YouTube appear to have caved to social media pressure and reinstated the video. Again, no explanation was given for the decision; indeed we only found out the video was back on YouTube when our fans contacted us to tell us. For all we know, if there is a counter barrage of complaints, the video could be taken down again tomorrow with no explanation.
The reality revealed by this incident is that the big tech giants answer to no one. While there is a formal right of appeal, the tech giants of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube act as judge, jury and executioner. In many cases, the decision is made by automated algorithms and then superficially reviewed by faceless apparatchiks. We weren’t told which aspects of our video were “hate speech” and, beyond throwing around this catch-all term, no justification was offered for taking it down. In essence, YouTube is accountable to no one.
The libertarian argument that YouTube is owned by a private company which is entitled to police content as it wishes is no longer sustainable. We live in a digital world in which a handful of big tech companies have seized control of the public square. As I have argued before, we need a First Amendment for the Internet.
To be clear, the issue here is not whether you agree with Posie Parker that “trans women are men.” The question is whether a 20-year-old in California gets to arbitrarily decide what people on the other side of the world are allowed to listen to.
Our interview with Posie Parker contained no hate speech or incitement. Don’t believe me? Watch it here for yourself.
But the truth no longer matters. The only thing that matters is what our Silicon Valley overlords decide. The design of YouTube’s hate speech policy is clear. A channel like ours, which has had a video deleted for “inappropriate content,” receives a warning. Any further violations lead to strikes. Collect three and your channel is permanently deleted.
The subliminal message behind this is obvious: “Censor yourself so we don’t have to.”
The danger of driving rational debate out of the digital public square is that people with non-conforming views end up communicating only with each other. If the tech giants of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube squeeze out heterodox content, it ends up on sites like Gab, 4chan and 8chan, which radicalise users. These spaces lack the counterarguments and balance necessary to expose lies, fake news and conspiracies. Instead, they drive users further and further down dangerous rabbit holes.
Open, honest communication about difficult subjects is the only way to resolve the major issues facing our societies today. Big tech companies must embrace this reality or face the consequences.