Social media, and the internet at large, has been a wondrous tool through which ideas and political debate have been enhanced by boundless measure during our lifetimes. Its introduction and evolution has had an effect on our world akin to the invention of the printing press. But just as the printing press was used to disseminate new and often controversial ideas of the age, so is the internet becoming a hub for the alternative and topics of contention. All this is, however, is in great peril if we do not stand up for the absolute and unequivocal freedom of speech that once existed online, but which has since been curtailed on and by sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Those who have censored and silenced dissenting voices do not fully realise the implications of their actions. We have become incredibly complacent about our freedoms, and have begun to take them for granted at home, as well as failing to recognise their persecution abroad. Just last week, I was in conversation with a group of people when one person uttered the words, “I agree with freedom of speech, just not for people like UKIP.” I have heard people use phrases that sound positively Orwellian, with outbursts such as “people should be taught the right way to think.” What these people have expressed is not a love for the freedom of speech but a complete disregard for all the values and freedoms which we enjoy. Have these people for one moment considered the possibility that it could very well one day be their group that is forcibly silenced?
Have they any knowledge of what happens to a society when the thought police take over and people are prevented from speaking their minds in case they do not conform to the accepted language? How long will it be until these factions are issuing their own editions of the Newspeak dictionary and our speech is limited by what they deem to be too inappropriate or offensive?
This sort of practice is already underway on forums such as Facebook and Twitter. These previously free platforms now suffer from the plague of censorship that should have been left behind when the Soviet Union collapsed. It has become so common that on Facebook the term “zucked” has been coined, a reference to Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. This is because of Facebook’s nasty habit of un-publishing pages that it does not approve of, which often happen to be right wing pages, such as God Save our Gracious Meme or The God Emperor Trump.
While some may disagree with the content posted on these pages, we have a duty to uphold the freedoms of the individuals who choose to view their content. It is not up to us or any other person to decide whether or not someone’s voice should be silenced because it would not fit in with our own world view. It is no different to the creation of a safe space and seeks to only extend the echo chamber of online forums. If we are not careful, within a few years, Facebook could see itself morph from the vanguard of social media interaction and the free and exciting open space it started off as, into a predominantly left-leaning message board site which has no time for those who do not conform to their approved list of jokes, views, and beliefs.
How can we ever expect to defeat some of the world’s most poisonous ideologies if we do not expose ourselves to what they think? I have always believed that the best thing that this country ever did to destroy the fascist hard right was to allow Nick Griffin a platform on BBC question time. He was given a chance to put across his loony points of view and promptly proceeded, not only to be shown by all present to be an ignorant and hateful man, but also very successfully managing to make an arse of himself as well.
This kind of thing is especially relevant given Milo Yiannopoulos’ and Martin Shkreli’s recent banning from Twitter. While I will readily admit I do have some sympathy for Milo, I also realise that he can sometimes say things that are hurtful to people and they obviously don’t appreciate it. But when did, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” stop having a real world application? To many people, these two men are seen as enemies of their ideology who need to be silenced. Last week it got so bad that a Milo supporter was shot while trying to enter one of his speeches in the USA. If an ideology requires the silence of its opponents or needs to be enforced with violence then it probably isn’t a particularly good ideology.
So essentially we find ourselves at a crossroads at which we all need to make a decision that could have an effect on how we debate the big issues over the next half century. Do we succumb to the all too easy tactic of shutting out those who we disagree with so we can feel all warm and cosy, hearing only arguments that agree with our world view? Or will we engage with our opponents online and have proper constructive debate? Silencing your opponents is a slippery slope to being silenced yourself.