The Left must defend Free Speech

Rupert Murdoch at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2009. Credit: Monika Flueckiger, World Economic Forum.

The Left must fight back against the attack on alternative media, writes Kevin K. Smith.

The autumn of 2020 has been characterised by manoeuvres to hinder and diminish free expression, especially for the Left, for campaigners striving to end economic injustice and social inequality, and for those seeking to empower working people. 

Facebook has purged a number of left wing pages in the latest phase of the War on Fake News.

The hearings on the request from the U.S government to extradite the controversial journalist and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange after the whistleblower was charged with violating the Espionage Act for his disclosures of American war crimes, continue. 

For about two months, the UK Ministry of Defence blacklisted Declassified UK, though this was fortunately terminated not long after the Council of Europe issued a ‘level 2’ media freedom alert. The MoD has subsequently apologised to the publication, which regularly produces investigative journalism on the contemporary (and historical) malfeasance of the United Kingdom’s intelligence agencies.

In France, on 16 October, more than a month after the commencement of the trial of 14 people involved in the 2015 attack on offices of the historically left-libertarian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old schoolteacher, was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen Islamist extremist because he showed his students cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad from the magazine for a class on free speech.

On September 2nd, in the U.S., the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that the mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, the whistleblowing former National Security Agency contractor, was in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and as a consequence possibly unconstitutional. 

On October 29th, Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who helped bring Snowden’s leaks to worldwide attention, resigned from The Intercept, the publication that he co-founded with Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras, because he was prevented from publishing a story covering The New York Post article Hunter Biden’s relationship with the Ukraine-based holding company Burisma because of an editorial presumption that the 53-year-old former litigation attorney’s piece on the dealings of the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would be seen to help his Republican rival, Donald Trump.

What has happened so far?

A variety of socialist and leftist publications have seen consistent downturns in their online traffic on Google. The Grayzone, RT and TeleSur are labelled “deprecated sources” on Wikipedia, by partisan editors violating the widely-used open-source encyclopedia’s purported foundational belief in neutrality, for their respective roles in questioning the virtue of overthrowing stable and popular governments in Latin America  and replacing them with anyone whose ambitions align with the exigencies of the United States’s short-term economic and commercial interests; Wikileaks was characterised by the same website as a source that “fail[s] the [site’s] verifiability policy” and for which there are “concerns regarding whether the documents are genuine or tampered”. Alternet, which hosted The Grayzone in the first two years of its existence, is listed as an “generally unreliable” source; meanwhile, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC, are all demarcated as “generally reliable in [their] areas of expertise”. It would appear that in the Wikipedia landscape that journalistic trustworthiness is directly proportional to the capacity to prettify and coalesce with U.S. imperial interests. Telesur was also banned by Facebook, alongside Venezuela Analysis, a little over a week after the company announced that it would be deleting 32 pages connected to the spread of misinformation and disinformation apparently authorised by Russian entities.

That same month, the provocateur Alex Jones and his far-right website InfoWars were removed from Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube. Most liberals and a number of people on the Left cheered this on. “This man spreads bigoted conspiracy theories, and not only said that the Sandy Hook shooting was fake, but harrassed the relatives of the children who were murdered by Adam Lanza, and attacks LGBT people! This is absolutely ugly and irresponsible behaviour and conduct and he should be barred!” Many, of course, justified this decision by doing their best impressions of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson (and maybe J.P. Morgan, too) and reminded the cautious and the skeptical in their ranks that monopolistic tech giants are still private companies can decide to distance themselves from anyone contravening the rules pertaining to how users of their service or their product behave and conduct themselves. “He can continue spreading his bile somewhere else! And Alex Jones has no interest in the agora, in the battleground of ideas — he’s a huckster, and he’s an unhinged reactionary!”

Glenn Greenwald was among those who located a frightening precedent and an essential matter of principle lurking somewhere inside the hullabaloo surrounding Jones and his ilk: in August 2018, he discussed the matter with the then senior Intercept politics editor and future National Press Secretary for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, Briahna Joy Gray, and Sam Biddle, a technology reporter for the outlet. Greenwald likened this controversy to a hypothetical scenario in which AT&T prevented communists from using their service because their executives found the ideas of Marx and Lenin to be pernicious in the 1940s, and asserted that the Big Tech giants should, like AT&T in 1982, be broken up by anti-trust measures, and generally made it known that “corporate titans” unfettered by any obligation to democratic accountability should not be capable of determining the parameters of truth and acceptable discourse. For Greenwald, the Supreme Court’s historic 1969 decision to characterise Ku Klux Klan member Clarence Brandenburg’s rant — which infringed the criminal syndicalism law in Ohio — hinting at revenge against African-Americans and Jewish people as protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for failing to incite “imminent lawless action” proffered a ‘workable framework’ for understanding the limits to free expression, one worthy of emulation by companies like Facebook and YouTube.

Companies like Facebook provide a massive platform for its approximately 2.7 billion active users to communicate and disseminate information (whilst disregarding their right to privacy and sending lobbyists to squelch efforts to promote consumer privacy like the California Consumer Privacy Act). They wield more power and influence than most independent sovereign states. They co-author with organisations set up to augment U.S. imperialism (like the Atlantic Council) regulative codes designed to shut out and shut up any individual or organisation deemed ‘dangerous’. This includes anarchist collectives, includes Palestinians found, according to the standards of the Israeli security apparatus, to be “inciting” against the apartheid regime under which they live, and extends to political leaders who unhappily ended up on a U.S. sanctions list. They seek to use experimental artificial intelligence to ensure that they hold sway over the choices made by consumers.

How did we get here?

The broader Left has long struggled with the idea of freedom of speech. The idea of deplatforming arose from weak leftists. Unable to organise against fascism in any meaningful way, they resorted to calling for a censorship of intolerant views. This readiness to lean into this gagging of unsavoury figures — and to be especially sanguine or insouciant about the very shady role of Mark Zuckerberg’s platform — can be better understood by looking at the distinction between ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ censorship. 

In ‘The geometry of censorship and satire’, the journalist and former Russia-based editor of The eXile Mark Ames, borrows this divarication from Sergei Dorenko, a polemical Russian T.V. pundit. “Vertical censorship” is the consequence of some “tyrannical top-down force”. Putin and the al-Qaeda perpetrators of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting are Ames’s examples of agents of vertical censorship. This ceases to be effective as soon as you know the location and the nature of such a force and how you can avoid it. ‘Horizontal censorship’ is ostensibly permissive and emanates from the “morality-policing” of civil society — even from your friends and colleagues. Under such a censorship regime, you don’t fear incarceration or death, but the obliteration of your livelihood and the denial of the means by which you expressed your opinion. To the extent that liberals, socialists and communists have struggled against efforts by governments to curb their ability to communicate information and express views to the public, the Left has been, for the most part, quite solid in opposing vertical censorship — particularly in the United States. 

Female delegates to the 1915 Women’s Peace Conference in The Hague, aboard the MS Noordam. April 1915.

The US First Amendment, which explicitly precludes the government from making any law that abridges “freedom of speech, or of the press”, freedom of assembly, or the freedom to “petition” those in charge “for a redress of grievances”. It sheltered an inflammatory racist like Clarence Brandenburg in the late 1960s but didn’t protect Charlotte Anita Whitney when she fell foul of similar legislation in the 1920s for her involvement with the Communist Labor Party of America. Whitney wasn’t the first revolutionary agitator to get into hot water in this way: two months after Woodrow Wilson reneged on his 1916 election promise to keep the U.S. out of the squalid inter-imperialist slaughter that had been tearing apart the European working-classes since the summer of 1914, the Espionage Act was passed. Before Assange, Snowden, and Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg were charged under this piece of federal legislation, Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer were both penalised for disseminating literature protesting conscription during World War I.

One of the greatest investigative journalists of all time, I.F. Stone, alludes to ‘Socialists in the days of Debs’ in an article that he wrote about the Supreme Court verdict in Terminiello v. Chicago: in this case, a conviction against a vituperatively anti-Semitic Catholic priest named Arthur Terminiello for breaching the peace with an incendiary, bigoted speech delivered to the Christian Veterans of America was reversed thanks to a 5-4 majority. Among the dissenting minority was Justice Robert H. Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor at the trials in Nuremberg, who admonished the bastardisation of the Bill of Rights into a “suicide pact” if the Supreme Court failed to ‘temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom’.

Stone, a Philadelphian of Russian Jewish descent of a broad left-libertarian bent whose formative political education came from reading Karl Marx, Jack London, and Peter Kropotkin in his teens, wrote that “the distillations of Justice Jackson from German experience d[id] not impress [him] much”, that, though the possession of liberties like free speech entailed the risk of abuse, it was the willingness to take risks that was the “prime characteristic of the whole period of human history which encompasses the whole period of human history which encompasses the Reformation, capitalism, and rationalism in one great burst of human energy”, and that the “gutter paranoia” of anti-Semitism, which grows “like any other fungus on the muck of despair”, can “only be prevented by fighting the conditions in which it can breed”.

American leftists, particularly those connected to the Socialist Party, learned early on that even in a country like the United States, where civil libertarianism is inculcated from an early age, they were not safeguarded from the most terrifying, double-distilled form of vertical censorship — that of the state that can keep you quiet for throwing into sharp relief its hideous folly. Moreover, the fact the highest court in the land allowed critics of U.S. involvement in a war that ended up killing at least 10 million (if not more) to be rolled over the heavy machinery of carceralism and spared preachers of what would now be labelled ‘hate speech’ like Terminiello and Brandenburg should be instructive. 

Indeed, the reluctance on the part of many on the Left to call out and oppose the arrest of speech and public communication by horizontal means is instructive as to how these historic demonstrations of the strengths and limitations of America’s brash civil libertarian ethic have been. The proliferation of fascism must, after all, be quelled. People of mild political sagacity, leave alone average emotional health and decency, recognise this; but the state is, for better or worse, theoretically supposed to be (but is obviously not in actuality) an ideologically neutral umpire. Thus, individuals who use mysticism, superstition, and pseudoscience about racial categories to legitimise segregation, discrimination and eradication of others, can’t be jailed, leave alone tortured or executed. 

This is not to say that the proponents and practitioners of horizontal censorship on the Left are totally hostile to all forms of vertical censorship. In the Republic of Ireland, they may, for example, still support the 1989 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act and its proposed amendments; their ideological cognates in Scotland may back the Scottish National Party hate crime bill. But they would, on the whole – probably because they recognise how utterly hopeless the criminal justice system and other organs of the state have been in redressing the grievances of marginalised and disempowered communities – try to limit governmental involvement in the adjudication of such matters. “Why would anyone wish to tolerate the most murderously counter-revolutionary ideology in human history?”, they might ask. “People should be disincentivised from advocating the values of the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the losing side in the Second World War! Why allow this poison to take root again?”. To this extent, they are the moral and intellectual heirs of Robert H. Jackson.

‘Disincentivisation’, or discouragement, often involves either a formal or informal campaign to make sure that the votary of such a worldview is disciplined and fired by their employer, disinvited from an event, and denied access to the large platforms they had once used to pump out (an often delicately packaged version of) their unsavoury views. 

This all seems fairly unproblematic when you forget the innuendo and outright slander with regard to racism that greets those who, say, criticise global trade arrangements that deplete developing countries (and poorer parts of the developed world) of not only unskilled workers, who are cynically instrumentalised to depress wages and further undermine the trades unions’ capacity for collective bargaining, but also skilled and educated workers thanks to domestic infrastructural neglect.

Or what about the calumny and the guilt by association that await anti-imperialist leftists willing to have a civil conversation with a libertarian podcast host whose YouTube channel has a little over 10 million subscribers. Or with a Trump-supporting broadcaster on Fox News about the political and intellectual cul-de-sac represented by contemporary identity politics. Or to challenge bogus assertions about the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election being set by the Russian Federation. Or what about the poor souls who found themselves sharing the uneasiness felt not only by white supremacists Richard Spencer and David Duke about replacing the regime in Damascus with either nothing at all or a brutally reactionary puppet of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Turkish Justice and Development Party? Should San Francisco Museum of Modern Art painting and sculpture senior curator Gary Garrels have been forced to resign from his position for saying that he would continue to collect work from white artists (which was tantamount to “toxic white supremacist beliefs” in the eyes of his critics)? Did HSBC transform into a lodestar of the revived anti-fascist struggle when it sacked six members of staff for making a parody of an ISIS execution video during a team-building exercise?

Meanwhile, in Britain, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was characterised as not exactly a present-day Arthur Terminiello, but, effectively, the man responsible, when he was in charge, for institutionally contaminating the Labour Party with the anti-intellectual, anti-modern, conspiracist poison of anti-Semitism. Even people who believed that, generally speaking, the Left abandoned its intense fixation on and punitivism against anything and everything that smacked of racism when it came to anti-Jewish sentiment, and even those people who believed that Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy was somewhat redolent of the callow, simplistic anti-imperialism exemplified by the Stop the War Coalition, made it clear that the case against Corbyn was a witchhunt. Would it have been a totally different story if Corbyn had been accused, in a comparably vague, tenuous, sententious and overwrought way, of turning the Labour Party into, say, an engine of ‘male entitlement’, or a vector of ‘white fragility’? Maybe one would’ve heard, from many of the people now rallying to his side, sanctimonious, smarmy, hollow expressions of solidarity directed towards the right-wing Labourites, and demands to have Corbyn deliver a fulsome apology and stay indefinitely away from public life.

It is news to no one that Corbyn, the first Old Labour style candidate in decades, was baselessly accused of antisemitism. Despite being vindicated with only two findings of antisemitism –  in a party of more than half a million – Jezza was booted out of the party. 

In reality, they simply aided and abetted the interests of the ruling class. This sort of internet activism has become a hallmark of the liberal left, particularly from those focussed on identitarian politics.

Ultimately, these tactics have become the raison d’etre for radical liberals. Unable to actually build a successful movement for the nebulous intersectional left – various minority groups but crucially not working people – they are occupied in purity politics. This is common for any group with many successive failures. Instead asking what is the problem, the question is always who is the problem. As such, it is perfectly natural for these political activists to demand censorship. Facebook is only more than willing to comply.

In his conversation with Biddle and Gray back in 2018, Greenwald makes it clear that the power to act as ‘arbiters of truth and falsity’ was (at least, not initially) not desired by the founders of Facebook and Google, who wanted to set up a gigantic content-neutral ‘platform provider’ similar to AT&T, but was bequeathed to them as a result of pressure from the public. That combined with the delusional belief, etched by Ames in his acerbic, astonishingly prescient piece, that a solution to the problem presented by the peremptory authority of “elites” lay in “flattened, decentralised power networks”, which obscured and mystified the “flattened” conformism of political and cultural discourse on especially Twitter (Ames instances the uniformity of misinterpretation and misrepresentation that requited the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and their supporters, and the mass reluctance to share their honest opinion of the Snowden leaks on social media), posits a plausible answer to the question ‘How did they ever get away this?’.

As with all things under capitalism, monopolists dominate the media. The issue with censorship unfolds on multiple levels. Firstly, for the public to receive accurate information, journalists must communicate accurately. This is becoming increasingly difficult. The suppression of news stories by state and private actors has a long history – too extensive for the scope of this article. In the private sphere, figures like Rupert Murdoch and Denis O’Brien have moulded and dominated the vast majority of the British Isles and Antipodes. Secondly, and more pertinent to recent developments, information is being actively suppressed by titans of the internet i.e. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Youtube, et al.

He hasn’t gone away you know. Credit: ITU Pictures

In the words of Axl Rose, where do we go now?

Unfortunately, time is running out for the left on these major platforms. For those of us concerned with class politics, i.e communists, socialists, trade unions, there is nothing we can do to resist the censorship pushed by these monopolists. The ruling class has expunged meme pages like Red London. Their tolerance for journalists who report on socialist politics, against wars, and on the exploitation of the working class has grown thin.

The workaround is thus: Get Telegram, pay subscriptions to magazines, get on a mailing list.

One could author an entire book just on the aetiology of these kinds of events, but the point is to oppose it. To do that, however, one has to call it ‘censorship’. It isn’t good enough to dance around the issue. A prestigious university’s decision to rescind its offer of admission from a prospective undergraduate (leave alone the politically engaged survivor of a school shooting) solely because of recently excavated offensive remarks they made as a teenager, or catapulting someone out of secure employment for similar reasons, is not the same or not as abhorrent as locking someone up or coercing them into paying a fine, but it doesn’t mean it should be flippantly shrugged off — especially by the Left (and it’s given the most frivolous treatment by the hopefully not totally unassailable radical liberal component of the contemporary Left). What happened to the view that, in a liberal democratic advanced capitalist society, the workplace was like an island of totalitarianism within an ocean of relative openness and transparency? Almost fours year ago, journalist and academic Liza Featherstone, warned, in a piece for The Baffler, her readers to reflect carefully on the creepiness of what was termed ‘”You’re Fired” liberalism’, and reminded them that, though there may be substantive political differences segregating the decision to get a misogynist boss fired over a boorishly sexist tweet from the attempt to get an anti-racist college professor thrown out of his college for jeering at white supremacists on the same medium and detach both of these cases from the indiscretions attributed to Senator Joseph McCarthy, but inasmuch as all of these cases involve economically and financially terrorising their targets for saying what they think they betray a horrific similitude: they presuppose the worsening the already suffocatingly precarious lives of workers in ‘a society with almost no safety nets’, where ‘few people have the job security afforded by union protections or tenure’, which in turn foments the conditions that lead to the proliferation of racism and sexism (and other ideologies of ascriptive difference), and for that reason should steadfastly be opposed by all committed socialists and communists. 

And the Big Tech giants may be used as instruments of horizontal censorship, but they represent bulwarks of vertical censorship for the power and influence that they wield.  This summer, U.S. Republican Party Senators Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton introduced a bill that would penalise companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter for any unjust and arbitrary suppression of political speech: the Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act would entail the payment of a fine of $5,000 and the loss of the immunity set down in Section 230 of the 1934 Communications Act if they abrogate their contractual obligation to uphold a good faith standard. 

The shameless invocation of fascism to oppress everything is ridiculous. I would feel better if liberals were honest and said they hated free speech. No one actually respects full free speech – we all have our limits. 

What did Facebook do when there was a staged chemical attack in Syria? They censored those who called out inconsistencies in the story. Where was the censorship of fake stories about the Venezualen government blocking roads? There was none. Did anyone receive a notification from Facebook owned Snopes regarding the alleged poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury? 

While publications like The Grayzone are being blacklisted at the moment, it is important to remember that this is all part of the wider censorship of alternative media. Publishers such as WikiLeaks, Telesur English, Granma English, RT, The Canary, & Venezuela Analysis have all been attacked over the past two years.

These attacks on alternative media by monopolies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. only serve to prop up mainstream media narratives as opposed to letting journalism flourish.

Liberalism is the sick man of Europe and in his death throes he gives Fascism new life.

Additional reporting by Josh Brady.