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Free speech being stifled on social media

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Can we trust social media platforms like Facebook and Google? Paul Huxley (Christian Concern) looks at the internet giants’ concerning recent record on free speech. 

On 14th June 2018, Robert A. J. Gagnon received a 24-hour ban from posting or commenting on Facebook.

Gagnon is the author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics – arguably the leading scholarly work explaining the Bible’s position that same-sex intercourse is sinful. He is a distinguished scholar, having been Associate Professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and authored numerous major publications, from esteemed theological journals to The Washington Post.

But Facebook has decided that he’s not good enough to write on their platform. At least, for 24 hours.

Did he abuse someone?

Did he write something racist, sexist or violent?

Did he post an offensive or unsuitable photo or video?

No.

Gagnon simply responded to a clip from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – a publicly-funded broadcaster – which showed a group of primary aged children being taught to celebrate gay pride. The presenter, Jessi Cruickshank, explained how Jodie Foster made her question her sexuality as a child, implying that she watched the film Nell multiple times because she liked seeing Foster nude.

Gagnon commented on Facebook as follows:

‘This clip is about celebrating sexual perversity, not "sexual diversity." Brought to you by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian equivalent to our PBS, paid for by tax dollars. No indoctrination or recruitment going on here (or on PBS), right? Any resemblance to Orwell's Big Brother (or Kim Jong-un) is purely coincidental? It is a measure of how corrupt things have become that this woman is not vilified throughout Canada and legislators are not threatening to remove funding from the CBC. By the end the woman is talking to little children about Jody Foster helping her to question her own sexuality as a child and about Foster's nudity in a film.’

Gagnon’s opinion is strong. Some writers couch their opinions in caveats, preferring to imply what they believe than say it outright. But his belief is clear – that this is an example of the routine indoctrination of children and young people into being ‘gay allies’ – i.e. those who unquestioningly accept the LGBT agenda for society.

His comment was not abusive. It was perfectly fair to point out that the video, which has been shared 25,000 times on Facebook, should have led to criticism and public pressure, rather than acceptance and praise.

The ban is only for 24 hours. By the time most people read this, the ban will likely have been lifted. But it is just one of many recent examples where social media platforms (or publishers) have restricted the speech of those with Christian or socially-conservative viewpoints.

Criticising transgenderism

A trans-critical group, Transgender Trend, had its fundraising campaign on Crowdfunder suspended due to complaints of transphobia. After criticism, Crowdfunder removed the ban.

Twitter has recently been accused of deleting or blocking posts referring to Ian Huntley, instead of his new, preferred name, Lian Huntley.

Criticising Islam

Former EDL-leader Tommy Robinson was permanently banned from Twitter back in April. The tweet that directly led to his permanent ban read:

                @CorbynistaEdith People who are poor are still alive . Islam promotes killing people.

In response, one YouTube channel (Acts17Apologetics) posted an amusing (and feisty) video contending that Twitter supports terrorism by censoring such criticism of Islam.

Bans, shadow bans and demonetisation

It is not just by outright bans of individuals or groups that social media companies are clamping down on certain kinds of speech. There are a number of other ways in which free speech can be restricted, including:

  • Shadow banning – this is when content creators’ posts aren’t shown in users’ feeds or on searches unless someone looks for them directly. This is a particularly hard phenomenon to prove but former Twitter employees have confirmed its existence.
  • Filtering – websites like YouTube age-restrict some content as inappropriate for younger audiences. But according to a lawsuit filed by American conservative content producer PragerU, YouTube is censoring their videos for ideological reasons.
  • Demonetisation – on YouTube, content creators receive a small portion of the revenue generated by adverts shown with their videos. Some independent content creators (from many political positions) have been stopped from receiving this income, thereby reducing their funding and in some cases affecting their livelihood.

Internet companies lean on partisan fact-checkers

Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon all rely on the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to flag ‘hate groups’ and ‘hate speech’ in different ways. But the group is known for its extreme anti-conservative bias, and giving SPLC this authority has led to conservative groups like Alliance Defending Freedom being banned from using Amazon Smile, a charitable fundraising initiative.

Similarly, Facebook relies on fact-checking site Snopes to flag fake news.  But questions have been raised about possible bias on the site, with a fact-checking site recently launched to fact-check the fact-checkers.

This system led recently to Babylon Bee articles being labelled as fake news, threatening the site’s revenue model. The Babylon Bee is a Christian satire site which posts obviously-false stories that nevertheless provide a Christian angle on current affairs. The founder, Adam Ford, recently sold the site, due in part to concerns about the neutrality of social media companies. He writes:

“Publishers have been worshiping at the altar of the Facebook and Google Information Duopoly for too long. Users have floated along as Facebook and Google have strategically implanted themselves as the gatekeepers of the world’s information. The internet has become centralized around these two tyrants, even as they’ve been demonstrably hostile to Christianity and conservatism. They run it unopposed.”

It is unsafe to rely on social media neutrality

Many of these incidents may be accidental. The companies involved may not be restricting the promotion of biblical or traditional views on purpose – but it is clearly unsafe to rely on them as if they are neutral platforms that will treat all views equally.

As Christians, we should weigh all that we hear or read by God’s word. Tempting though it may be, keeping up to date with the latest developments on news websites and social media is no replacement for meditating on God’s unchanging message, found in the Bible.

So, let’s use whatever opportunities we have to share that truth on the internet – but remember that our trust is not in Facebook, YouTube or Twitter – but in the LORD.

Note:

After publication, Robert Gagnon received an apology from Facebook (with just 22 minutes of his ban left). You can read more about his experience, along with others who've received similar bans here.

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