Big Tech Is Silencing Free Speech . . . Including Ours

Amid the hysteria of this post-truth moment, we at Adbusters have been made the target of a counter-campaign of misinformation and intimidation. Since we launched the “White House Siege” late in July, the far right’s conspiracy theory–fuelled propaganda machine has attempted to stoke outlandish fears, falsely portraying us as violence-inciting, looting, pillaging bogeymen. In consequence, both our inbox and social media have been flooded with bloodthirsty expressions of semi-literate hostility. We’ve been informed that we’ll be met by “armed militias.” We’ve been told to “get ready for war.” We’ve been threatened with being “taken away in body bags.” These threats, however, have all proved to be as empty as their authors’ skulls. Not one has amounted to anything more than keyboard-mediated bluster.

But then one month into our campaign, Facebook censored the hashtag #WhiteHouseSiege, citing violations of the company’s “community standards” (perhaps due to the rabid reaction outlined above). As a result, we were forced to do an about-face and run with an entirely different hashtag: #ReOccupy. Our efforts at resuscitating democracy undoubtedly suffered for it. For its part, Facebook’s complaints department has yet to get back to us with any clarification whatsoever. We’ll continue to bang and bang and bang on their door until we get a full explanation. And as soon as we get one, we’ll share it with you.

If it were merely an isolated incident, Facebook’s suppression of our campaign’s hashtag would stand as an affront to free speech everywhere. But in fact, as many of you will recognize, this was not an isolated incident. It is just one instance in a broad pattern of censorship on the part of technology companies. In their haphazard scramble to appease the growing crowd of critics who denounce the proliferation of propaganda on digital platforms, firms such as Facebook have suppressed not only harmful misinformation and hate speech but legitimate dissent like ours, too.

Take Zoom’s blocking of Leila Khaled. One day before she and others, in partnership with San Francisco State University, were scheduled to conduct a roundtable discussion — titled “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice and Resistance: A Conversation with Leila Khaled” — on Zoom, the video-conferencing platform cancelled the event, objecting to Khaled’s affiliation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Instead, the discussion was streamed on YouTube and Facebook. But both platforms, following Zoom’s lead, swiftly terminated the feed.

Each company cited concerns that the lecture would violate policies prohibiting the endorsement of violent organizations on its platform. According to a spokesperson for Zoom, Khaled’s speaking at the event would have transgressed “certain limitations contained in our Terms of Service, including those related to user compliance with applicable U.S. export control, sanctions and anti-terrorism laws.” That is because the U.S. deems the Marxist-Leninist PFLP — which so happens to be a thorn in the side of Israel, a staunch American ally — a terrorist organization.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the PFLP carried out a string of aircraft hijackings that precipitated the Jordanian Civil War, also known as Black September. In 1969, a 25-year-old Khaled — who bears the singular distinction of being the “first female hijacker” — commandeered TWA Flight 840, from Rome to Tel Aviv, and held two passengers captive for several weeks. All parties walked away unscathed after the hostages were exchanged for prisoners of the state of Israel. Khaled went on to attempt a second hijacking the following year but was thwarted in the process. Now 76, she lives on in the radical imagination as an iconic revolutionary and feminist.

Prior to the event, San Francisco State had given Zoom assurances that Khaled, who would not be compensated for her participation, would speak on behalf no group or person but herself. Regardless, the freedom of expression is enshrined in law. It is not the job of corporations to control or curtail it as they see fit. Who are Zoom, Facebook, or YouTube to decide whether or not a university-sanctioned event should take place? Who are they to assume that any speaker whatsoever might not “inform” but rather “indoctrinate” before even having said their piece? Who are they to judge whose speech deserves to be heard and whose merits silencing?

During these pandemic-plagued times, digital communications are crucial to both the discussion of ideas and the organization of dissent. To resist corporations’ policing of internet-facilitated speech, we need to take immediate action — before the internet becomes a place where only certain opinions, and certain ideologies, are permitted. We the People must rise up and insist that technology companies step away from policing — that is, restricting — the freedom of speech and be held accountable for their infringement of that fundamental right.

Resist the tyranny of Big Tech. Flood Zucc’s social-media accounts with calls to #FreeOurSpeech. Join the Mental Liberation Front in the fight to take back your mind by force.

And then . . . play jazz.

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