Saturday, April 21, 2018

Richard Spencer and Facebook

Last week Facebook removed Richard Spencer's pages.  The BBC reports that his personal page was removed, as were the pages for the National Policy Institute, an organization that favors a white ethnostate, and, his online magazine.  All of these are now gone from Facebook, probably as a result of Mark Zuckerberg's appearance before 2 Congressional committees.

Let me be perfectly clear.  I don't agree with Mr. Spencer.  His white supremacist views offend me.  It's also true that his Twitter and YouTube accounts are still there, and both the National Policy Institute and have active web sites.  He has plenty of access to free speech.  But he no longer has access to Facebook.  For some reason this bothers me.

I've posted before that if Nazis don't have free speech, I don't have free speech.  I think Mr. Spencer qualifies as a Nazi, at least in his racist views.  I suspect he was evicted from Facebook because of the bad publicity over the 2016 election, not to mention the riot in Charlottesville.  But when offensive speech is censored, it raises the question:  who decides what is offensive speech?  Also, who decides what platforms are and should be available for public speech? 

Removing these pages from Facebook reduces the size of his audience to the people who know how to find his platforms elsewhere; and there seem to be a lot of people these days who never leave Facebook.  This is a form of censorship.  Is that a good thing?

It's a hard question and I don't have an answer.  But I'm not sure I trust Mark Zuckerberg, if he was the one who made the decision, to be the guardian of free speech.


  1. To respond to your post, I'm a member of the quickly aging older generation. I'm 70, which means I grew up in a world of radio, television and land-line phones.

    After initially resisting it, I eventually became a regular blogger, and now use e.mail in preference to live phone contact.

    But I drew the line on "social media" -- the wholesale participation in the tagging and chirping and mindless messaging which seems to constitute the greater majority of so-called "social media" which Zuckerberg's "Facebook" and related sites represent.

    In a larger sense, the internet isn't a political universe in which we all say what we want and project it into infinite space. It's a collection of "sites" and "applications" all of which are in fact proprietary. In other words, they belong to someone.

    Early on, I got pissed-off when owners of chat-sites "moderated" my posts by not passing them, or deleting them. I saw this as violation of free speech. But those sites were never obliged to observe my free speech rights. They belonged to someone else, who had every right to censure me at will.

    On my own blog, I attacked a Southern California judge who was favoring big ag interests. Blogger took that post down and threatened to kill my blog altogether, if I engaged in that kind of activity again. Presumably, I could file an appeal against that, but the means were clearly closed to me (I couldn't even verify who had filed the actual complaint). Perhaps one of these internet security firms could have helped me pursue the matter, but I didn't feel like paying for that privilege.

    I guess that the internet is still in its infant stages. Is it a "utility" which can be regulated in the public interest? Or is it a sort of sophisticated playground, like Disneyland, where you pay to play or must follow the rules laid down by the corporate owner? I'm unclear about this.

    Clearly Zuckerberg has the authority to ban people.

    Where speech is regulated, and how it will happen, is never a settled issue. Do newspapers have an obligation to carry Nazi ads? Do television stations have an obligation to show both sides of an issue? Does Facebook have a mandate to let fascists spread lies?

  2. You make very good points. For the record, I'm also a member of the quickly aging older generation, I'm just more technically adept than many! I still prefer phone contact but use email liberally.

    I have no answers to your questions about who owns the Internet and who has the right to censor. However, the whole "Russian interference" flap has made those questions suddenly more relevant, as people realize that the posts they thought came from other Americans may in fact have come from Russian bots. In fact, Facebook just took down a bunch of accounts they thought were "engaging in inappropriate behavior" (this was in today's S.F. Chronicle business section) - and one of the accounts seems to have belonged to a group associated with Black Lives Matter, who were organizing a rally in Washington to compete with a white supremacist rally supposedly scheduled also for Washington (although CNN said the white supremacist group hadn't yet asked for a permit).

    When it comes down to television stations showing both sides of an issue, in fact I'd like to see that rule come back; although I suppose I don't really have a say in that debate since I stopped watching anything on television sometime around 1983. I get my news these days from NPR (which does perhaps lean a little left but also interviews conservatives for their opinions) and the Economist (clearly biased in favor of free trade).