Truthfulness must prevail in social media regulation debate

18 January 2021

Carys Moseley comments on the implications to free speech that come from banning people on social media.

How should disputes about free speech on social media be handled? Who decides what is outside the bounds not only of decency but of the law? These questions are not new. They have become particularly important over the last five years with the growth of so-called Big Tech companies. Fundamental freedoms such as freedom of religion, free speech and freedom of assembly are at stake here.

Here in the UK, a lot of the concerns about free speech and censorship have been around the use of Twitter and Facebook. People have lost their jobs due to things they said on these platforms. Public debate has been deeply affected by what happens on social media and how the press, politicians and various public authorities respond. The question of how to deal with harmful online content has become central, with the government proposing to regulate social media to address this. Specifically, the government has given OFCOM the role of regulation.

Is Ofcom the answer?

In December, John Nicholson, an SNP MP on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee of the House of Commons, compared gender-critical views to racism. He was asking Melanie Dawes the CEO of Ofcom why the BBC gave airtime to critics of transgender ideology to balance news stories about transgenderism. Dawes agreed with him, and said Ofcom was taking advice from Stonewall about how to structure programmes appropriately.

Conservative MP Damian Green, a former Channel 4 presenter, challenged Dawes on her remarks, saying:

“You seem to agree with the proposition that anyone who disagrees with any aspect of the current orthodox trans rights position is the equivalent of an old-fashioned racist.

“The most famous person who agrees with that is JK Rowling.

“I find it slightly odd that a broadcasting regulator has effectively said that JK Rowling and women who think like her are the equivalent of old-fashioned racists.

“You did seem to be suggesting that women like JK Rowling were just beyond the pale, they’re not allowed to enter the debate.

“I think that’s probably an inappropriate position for a senior regulator.”

The problem with Dawes’ approach is that people who tell the unvarnished truth about transgender policies would be marginalised and censored. Freedom ‘to not be offended’ would trump freedom of speech. Since then, the Ofcom code has been revised, based on a now-defunct EU directive. Criticism of ‘gender reassignment’ and ‘political or other beliefs’ is now considered ‘hate speech’ by Ofcom. Many in the press are very concerned.

Ofcom enshrines BBC cancel culture

Had Ofcom’s policy been in place before Christmas, it would have derailed accurate and impartial reporting of the High Court case on puberty blockers. For at the heart of the claimants’ case and of the judgment were veiled criticisms of the whole process of gender reassignment in children and young people, including young adults over 18 who had already been put on puberty blockers.

Also in December, the BBC News LGBT Correspondent published a now-notorious article about the Tavistock’s request to appeal the High Court judgment. No scientists and no gender-critical voices were sought out. Many people complained to the BBC about the bias. The BBC modified the article slightly but issued no formal apology. Once again, self-expression trumped free speech and therefore truth-telling. Dawes’ arrogance and Ofcom’s new code have effectively given an imprimatur to this mentality.

Conscientious truthtellers smeared as ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists’

This ‘cancel culture’ mentality of marginalising truth-telling is dangerous for another reason, namely that it rewards the Twitter mobs. It is well-known that there are trans ally Twitter mobs that aim to intimidate critics and shut them down or worse. They have become an ugly feature of public ‘debate’ in recent years. The problem with such mobs is that they often seem to be motivated by silencing truth-tellers.

Take for example Jolyon Maugham QC. He is not pleased with the High Court judgment and has been campaigning to support the Tavistock’s appeal. On Twitter he implicitly compared the lawyers and gender-critics who brought the judicial review against the Tavistock to Nazis persecuting Jews. Indeed, he specifically complained about ‘the Christian Right’ and put ‘gender-critical “feminists”’ in inverted commas to indicate that to him they were not ‘real’ feminists. This sort of untruthful terribilising of conscientious truth-tellers is at the heart of ‘cancel culture’. It is calling evil good and good evil. The truth is that this trend for demonising conscientious truth-tellers has left radical progressives with little ability to discern.

The significance of Twitter banning Trump

As if we didn’t have enough challenges in the UK, we cannot ignore the shockwaves caused by Twitter banning Donald Trump, the outgoing US president, on 8 January. The reason Twitter gave was a risk of incitement to further violence.” After reading Twitter’s full statement, it becomes clear that its reasoning was largely based on how other people interpreted Trump’s words in his speech. In other words, Twitter was not simply assessing whether Trump himself had incited or would incite violence at the Capitol. It says it was assessing how others might respond. This is very significant as a major Big Tech platform was now punishing users for how others might respond to their spoken and written words. Clearly this has worldwide implications.

This whole train of reasoning is part of the idea that there is such a thing as ‘potentially harmful speech’. It is extremely important to understand this because also here in the UK the entire discourse around regulating ‘online harms’ through legislation centres around censoring ‘harmful content’ including ‘harmful speech’. The government said this last month:

“The new laws will apply to content where it gives rise to a reasonably foreseeable risk of a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on individuals.”

A major factor in the history of Big Tech censorship has been censorship of people (especially women) who criticise aspects of transgender activism and policies. These were non-violent in their articulation of their views. Nevertheless, people have been thrown off platforms for ‘hateful’ or ‘harmful’ speech, whereas many kinds of real depravity has been allowed to flourish. This general hypocrisy has been noted over a long time now by people of many different persuasions. This is undoubtedly a major unspoken reason why so many people have reacted with alarm at Twitter banning Trump.

Politicians everywhere panic

World leaders have started to panic about Twitter banning Donald Trump. Angela Merkel the Chancellor of Germany, Matt Hancock in the UK, the president of Mexico, the economy and finance minister of France, the acting prime minister of Australia and Alexei Navalny the leader of the Russian opposition have all expressed concern.

Why have world leaders panicked? It isn’t too cynical to point out that they don’t want to be shut down themselves! On the level of serious principles, they realise that the moment has arrived where private corporations have gained the upper hand over the head of state of the world’s most powerful country. Not only that, but the only western democratic superpower. If it can happen in the USA it could happen anywhere in the world. This is a crisis about the meaning of free speech of world-historical importance. Not that Big Tech companies appear to care.

Big Tech companies take down rival Parler

Having come together to de-platform Trump, Big Tech companies went after their biggest rival, ‘free speech’ app Parler. This has received a great deal of critical comment. For only a few years ago, progressives were arguing that if you did not like the speech rules on Big Tech platforms, you could go elsewhere or maybe even create your own platform. This is exactly how and why Parler was created.

It is hard not to draw the conclusion that what Big Tech companies want is to create a monopoly over online speech. They intend to take over completely. Are Big Tech companies scoring an own goal here? Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey now admits they might have done.

The political battle over Big Tech

Everyone is now discussing how online speech should be treated. Clearly Big Tech has become too powerful. One idea is that the USA should nationalise Twitter and Facebook. This would make them government-controlled. This suggestion ignores the fact that these are global companies working across many different countries. If they are nationalised in the USA, free speech will almost certainly become even more government-controlled elsewhere. However, the favoured American response across the political spectrum is a combination of suing Big Tech companies for acting unlawfully and breaking up Big Tech.

The first, statist response is not entirely dissimilar to what is underway here in the UK, if only in the sense that government would have the upper hand. There was something predictable about Matt Hancock jumping to claim that the Trump Twitter ban raises questions about regulation. It fits perfectly with the government’s agenda of making Ofcom responsible for regulating social media.

Ofcom is the problem

The truth is that Ofcom as it is now is the problem here, not the answer. Melanie Dawes said plainly that Ofcom would ask Stonewall for advice on programme content and balance. Like countless other public institutions, Ofcom is a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Programme. It is very much in Stonewall’s pocket.

Stonewall is increasingly distrusted by conscientious citizens for its relentless push of transgender ideology. It is no friend of free speech and is one of the worst purveyors of ‘cancel culture’ in the UK. Everything that is now said about Ofcom – and no doubt countless other institutions – is first and foremost a criticism of Stonewall’s grip on such institutions.

Will Ofcom erode the powers of government?

I think there is a good case for arguing that the progressive madness exemplified by Stonewall, Ofcom and Twitter undermines the powers of government. Truthfulness must be at the heart of government otherwise its integrity – and its credibility with citizens – will collapse. Thus, the government should take another look at its proposed Online Harms Bill. Ofcom’s new code would lead to censoring gender-critical government ministers like Liz Truss! Not only that but by implication all elected politicians holding any degree of gender-critical views would be censored as ‘hateful’. This means Ofcom would effectively be undermining both the executive and legislative branches of government at all levels.

Also, and again as shown above, the workings of the judiciary would be undermined by the new code. The judges in the Bell v Tavistock case did not pull their punches. They repeatedly expressed surprise that the Tavistock had not provided adequate scientific evidence to the court when requested to back up its claims. In other words, the judges were unimpressed that transgender campaigners did not prioritise truthfulness in their work with vulnerable children. The only reason we all know this is that because we have freedom of the press and online free speech, the judgment was published in full and quoted by journalists.

Truthfulness must be prioritised over fear of offence

Britain’s extreme progressives have taken a hit recently as regards their insane support of transgender politics. They know that many of their supporters are angry and worried. The contrast between their response to the High Court judgment and Ofcom’s new code on the one hand and Twitter banning Trump on the other is illuminating. Stonewall’s Twitter account shows that it enthusiastically welcomed Ofcom’s new code. However, Stonewall remained silent about Twitter banning Trump, despite previously criticising him. One suspects that Stonewall is mindful of having lost support due to its embrace of transgender ideology. It cannot afford to lose more.

Likewise Liberty, which campaigns for freedom of expression, had released a joint press release with Amnesty International supporting puberty blockers after the High Court judgment. This went down very badly on Twitter. Liberty was silent on Big Tech silencing Trump. Its US equivalent the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern for free speech, despite strongly opposing Trump. The truth is that progressive organisations similarly cannot afford to say anything here. Stonewall in particular epitomises censoriousness. If it sides openly with Big Tech against Big Government, there are those within the government who will push for it to be sidelined. If it sides openly with Big Government against Big Tech, it stands accused of doing the government’s bidding and squelching free speech. Ultimately what needs to happen in the public debate and inside government is that truthfulness is prioritised over self-expression and the fear of causing offence. This means that freedom of speech must be valued more. This has to happen, otherwise regulating online harms becomes tyrannical.

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