Censorship after Christchurch

BY LIAM DEACON

A friend of mine who also works at a national redtop sent me a link the other day, to a copy of the Christchurch terrorist’s live-streamed video of his attack. We now know those sharing it could be arrested for disseminating terrorist material, so it’s probably lucky I declined to open it.

I didn’t, however, because I remember Twitter in the “wild west” days, when I started working as a reporter, and would frequently chance upon ISIS beheadings, shootings, or demonic footage of drug addicts possessed. I haven’t watched a horror film since I was a teenager – for a good reason – and some of those 30-second ‘Twitvids’ could ruin my day and even give me a sleepless night.

I’d hope that no-one would want to have to confront such sights on a website they are compelled to use just to do their job and I understand why many have welcomed the internet giant’s recent crackdown on “harmful” content.

But that crackdown, as we know, has gone much further. There has also been a wave of political censorship overseen by the Silicon Valley mayors of social media town – which has become, by default, the new public square of democratic debate – because there exists a grey area between “hate,” radical views, politically incorrect sentiments, conspiracies, and the dreaded “fake news.”

Indeed, resisting demands to censor “fake news” on his platform in 2017, Mark Zuckerberg wrote something quite sensible. “We are proceeding carefully because there is not always a clear line between hoaxes, satire and opinion,” he typed in a blog. Twitter has been far more political from the start, but I fear Facebook and Google (YouTube) are now following where @jack leads.

Facebook and others have, rightly, removed millions of copies of the Christchurch footage, including non-graphic sections, but Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, went further and was praised for promising to never mention the terrorist’s name. The Mail Online, the Sun, and Mirror, meanwhile, when ahead and uploaded small sections and stills of the footage and sought to name and investigate the attacker and his motives. Buzzfeed and others took the high ground and then attacked their competitor for using these images before Neil Basu, the UK’s head of counter-terror policing, reminded the newspaper this week that “freedom is not an absolute right,” as the British state now sees it, and chillingly “invited the editor” to “discuss” their coverage of this police matter with the police.

It was a difficult snap call for editors, but I think the tabloids were right to responsibly, and in a redacted form, report what was already widely available online. Banning IRA voices from TV did not stop their attacks and responsible reports today won’t trigger another shooting, as it is claimed. But not doing so will create even more suspicion of the mainstream media and push readers to the fringes of the net. The Mail clearly went too far by allowing readers to download the killer’s twisted “manifesto,” and they have apologised.

But, as I say, I did not click on that link like some of my colleges in the industry. I did, however, notice the URL was to a London-based “Alt-right” website called LiveLeak, which was blocked this week, along with a site called 8chan, on many servers in Australia and New Zealand after the 17-minute video appeared there for a time.

Since Tweeting about my shock, LiveLeak got in touch to insist they have “been removing the Christchurch video since it happened and have even put out a statement as to why we won’t carry it.”

So I gave LiveLeak a visit. Luckily they have content warnings so you can avoid the really hard stuff, but the website is largely populated by videos of disturbed individuals, war, graphic violence, other content rightly deemed not suitable for YouTube, and lots of Trump memes, of course. 8chan, meanwhile, is mainly text, with a shocking number of comments supportive of the killer.

When there, I was also fascinated to see LiveLeak is also now where the videos of many more well-known commentators are ending up, including Alex Jones’s “Info Wars” broadcasts, since the wildly popular, conspiratorial, foaming-at-the-mouth, shock jock was simultaneously purged from Facebook, the iTunes podcast store, and YouTube last year.

There they were, his two-hour-long, slickly produced gospels for the American hard-right, alongside beheading videos and other murky content also seen on similarly “Alt-right” website like 8chan, where the Christchurch terrorist forged his ideology and identity.

And I realised:  Silicon Valley’s political censorship is not “cleaning up” the web, it’s just helping to creates more concentrated cesspits of dark content. Banning stupid (but not illegal) content on mainstream platforms only sends it to underground platforms in the darker corners of the web.

The highly publicised bans on the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos, Tommy Robinson and Gavin McInnes have been celebrated by many liberals, but they could, in fact, be driving some toward the far-right and the extremes. These bans can, for certain, only accelerate the distinctive political polarisation of the online age and the creation of bubbles of opinion where mislead views are less likely to be challenged.

Alex Jones was frequently mocked, questioned, and debunked on YouTube and Facebook, where critics were also exposed to his rantings. Now, he’s just going to become the king of LiveLeak, with his fans existing in an increasingly closed-off bubble of conspiratorial thinking, unexposed to new and better ideas.

In the wake of Christchurch, calls to censor edgy speakers and speech have increased. Really gruesome footage should go, of course, but Corbynistas, antifascists, the Alt-Light, liberals and conservatives should all be allowed to stay and fight it out online.

As Mill wrote in Utilitarianism: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”

I for one would rather be a dissatisfied online citizen, in the company of angry eggs*, than an ignorant, satisfied pig in a political echo chamber.

*anonymous accounts on Twitter

Liam Deacon works as a news reporter at the Daily Star Online, covering crime, politics, and a wide range of tabloid interest stories. Liam has also regularly appeared on radio (Sirius XM, talkRADIO, the Jon Gaunt show, BBC Radio Scotland, and Radio 5 live). Liam worked at the online tabloid Breitbart from 2015 to 2018 – before Breitbart, he covered drug policy at the website Talking Drugs and for VICE on a freelance basis. Liam has contributed to the Huffington Post blog, to the Guardian, Spiked-Online, Left Foot Forward, Conservative Woman, and FreeThoughtBlog.

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