And Then They Came for Us

Big Tech censorship is hurting the freedom of speech.

By Rolene Marks

One of the great barometers of any democracy is the right to free speech. The freedom of speech is ingrained and protected by law or constitutions in any self-respecting democracy. Many of us are familiar with the tenet made famous by Voltaire, “I disapprove with what you say but I will defend to death your right to say it”. The ability to engage in polite albeit robust discourse, where we may disagree with each other is one of life’s great intellectual pursuits.

Today, many of these opportunities to engage in discourse have moved on to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and the like. Social media provides an excellent opportunity for us not just to engage; but to educate as well and that is something that Lay of the Land is committed to. We are not only focused on bringing you excellent, original content and news headlines from Israel but we want to introduce the world to those stories. We, like many, rely on these platforms to help our writers and content receive the exposure they deserve.

In the last few months, an ominous trend has surfaced. “Big Tech” companies (this includes the giants like Facebook, Twitter and others) have started to restrict the online exposure of any pages, groups and individuals who may post “political” content. Of course another reason could be to try and hold off for more advertising, although the former is more likely the reason that people are being censored. Big Tech company owners certainly do not need to be making more money!

As the US election race between Trump and Biden heated up, so did the engagement on social media platforms. This was one of the most polarizing elections in many, many years. Debate on social media veered quickly from differences in opinion to all out abuse from both sides.

Social media giants Facebook, Twitter and others (also referred to as “Big Tech”) took the decision to censor or de-platform many who they believed flouted the laws on common decency. Many of these people were far rightists and it took moments for them to find alternative platforms like Parler to congregate. They were quickly de-platformed by platform hosts like Apple, Amazon and others.

Freedom of speech is sacrosanct in a democracy and one hopes that people are able to make up their minds about issues, no matter how loathsome they might find the other side.

There is a fundamental difference between hate speech and free speech. Any speech that endorses violence or hatred against opposing viewpoints or minority communities needs to be dealt with in the strongest terms and within the law.

In the age of extremely short and competitive news cycles, the importance of balanced reporting has never been more critical. Social media has become another arm for news networks and journalists to share information and a good barometer of measuring where public opinion is holding. Sometimes the barometer shows high temperatures!

The problem is that Big Tech companies are not too crazy about networks or journalists that do not meet their increasingly more “woke” agendas. They have embarked on a policy of restricting groups, individuals or business that they think may be overtly political and have descriptions that raise an alert in their algorithms. Oh how I miss the days we dealt with people rationally and did not have to fight an algorithm!

One prime example of this is Facebook. In the last few weeks, the social media giant has clamped down on groups, pages and businesses. This has become personal.

Many of us, including Lay of the Land rely on social media platforms to grow exposure – and also to educate. Our exposure and reach has been significantly impacted and restricted – as have many fundraising organisations who have felt the pinch because certain wording in their description may not fit in with Facebook’s monitoring algorithms.

Silhouettes are seen in front of the logo of US social media Facebook in Brussels, February 14, 2020. (Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

The words Zionism may not be immune.

In a leaked email dated 10 November 2020 and written by a Facebook employee; hinted that they may review their policy on allowing the term “Zionist.” Pro-Palestinian groups argue that such a move would endanger free speech on Israel issues.

In the email dated Nov. 10, the unidentified employee wrote to an unidentified source: “We are looking at the question of how we should interpret attacks on ‘Zionists’ to determine whether the term is used as a proxy for attacking Jewish or Israeli people. The term brings with it much history and various meanings, and we are looking to increase our understanding of how it is used by people on our platform”. Only this policy significantly impacts the ability to explain and educate about Zionism as well. It is ironic that the social media platform that is now acting as the thought police; also received a “D” rating for banning Holocaust denial.

Facing Off. In response to the Australian government introducing a law that will make tech giants pay for news content, Facebook responded by banning all Australian news content from its platform taken the ‘battle’ to a whole new level.
 

And then there is Australia. Last week Australians searching Facebook for their news updates were instead shown notifications saying ‘no posts’ were available. Attempting to share news links brought up a message saying, ‘this post can’t be shared’.

This was Facebook’s petulant response to a policy initiated by the Australian government to charge the social media giant for news content on their site, an agreement that has been reached with Google.

But the shock move also stopped some government messages from being shared, including from emergency services providing essential information on the Covid-19 pandemic, fires, and help for victims of domestic violence. It also impacted on various charities; foodbanks and at least one missing person’s page were also caught up in the ban.

Other countries weighed in, showing their support for Australia. US President Biden has also commented on the “arrogance” of Big Tech. The United Kingdom and European Union states are also debating instituting the same legislation in their countries. Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, accused Facebook of committing an “act of war on a sovereign state”.

Facebook v Australia. This isn’t cricket. Front pages of Australian newspapers featuring stories about Facebook in Sydney, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. In a surprise retaliatory, Facebook blocked Australians from sharing news stories, escalating a fight with the government over whether powerful tech companies should have to pay news organizations for content. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

It is extremely dangerous when Big Tech becomes powerful enough to wage an information war on sovereign states. We as news consumers and free thinking human beings deserve the right and access to information which gives us the ability to make informed decisions.  Big Tech companies, worth billions, certainly can afford to pay the tariffs!

Perhaps Facebook could spend their energy in monitoring hate speech more effectively than dictating what information people should be allowed to access.

This time it has become personal. Draconian, unchecked censorship by Big Tech who are flexing their muscles; is hurting businesses and steadily eroding free speech.

First they came for the politicians, then they came for those that they disagree with, then they came for the sovereign states. And then they came for us.

The question is when will this end?





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

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