Free speech and ‘deplatforming’

‘Deplatforming’ (also known as ‘no platform’)has become a prominent issue in relation to free speech. “Canceling or disinviting someone to speak at an event” (but ‘no platform’ may also be a means of trying to stop controversial speakers have platforms generally).

Deplatforming is a new term to me, that came up in recent controversies over opposition to allowing Canadians Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern speak first at Auckland Council owned venues, and then more generally – the Power Station cancelled an event the afternoon before the duo were due to speak there.

And it also arose when Massey University cancelled a student political event that Don Brash was scheduled to speak at.

It is a big issue in the US:  Attitudes to free speech are changing, and Steve Bannon has something to do with it

Two widely read magazines made two different decisions about Steve Bannon this week. The New Yorker on Monday announced it was disinviting Bannon as a speaker at its October festival, while the London-based Economist on Tuesday defended its decision to keep him on at its own event this month.

The magazines received a torrent of criticism that the media is giving a megaphone to a dangerous white nationalist of waning relevance.

The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, went the other way, saying that while he had hoped for “a rigorous interview” onstage with Bannon to challenge his views, he conceded there were better ways to achieve that scrutiny than by giving Bannon yet another platform.

The growing number of these “disinvitations” — many of them at universities in both the US and UK — shows a shift in attitudes to free speech, and even a desire to move its goalposts.

It may not be taking hold in New Zealand after widespread criticism of the Massey banning of Brash. A visit this week by Nigel Farage attracted only minor protests (and scant interest over what he said), and Chelsea Manning was granted a visa to come and speak here despite her criminal record.

What some people pointed out to the New Yorker about Bannon was that his presence at the festival was not just a matter of the freedom to express one’s views. It was also about his track record in distributing false information through Breitbart, the website he co-founded in 2007.

Breitbart has run stories that support climate change denial, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it’s real. It has also run stories alleging the Obama administration was supporting al Qaeda in Iraq, an accusation that has no basis in fact.

It gets quite contentious when known perpetrators of ‘fake news’ are involved. Major online platforms have recently restricted Alex Jones from using their platforms. Facebook, Twitter and others have enormous power over speech and have been under pressure to clamp down on being exploited by activists deliberately spreading false news, especially where foreign countries try to influence elections.

But what if Donald Trump had the power to shut down platforms that he claims spread fake news about him?

A claim of ‘fake news’ does not mean the news is fake, with people like Trump it is synonymous with  ‘news I don’t like’, or critical commentary.

Attitudes to free speech depend on age. Forty percent of millennials in the US — where free speech is enshrined in its constitution — think the government should be able to prevent people from saying things that offend minority groups, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. That drops to 27% among generation X respondents, 24% among baby boomers and just 12% for “silent generation Americans,” aged 73 to 90.

It is quite alarming to see as many as 40% of a younger age group want their government to prevent speech that they think is (or may be) offensive to someone. Is that a sign of where ‘free speech’ is going to go?

Inciting hatred with speech is illegal in some parts of the world, and privacy can also place limitations on what you say.

Some millennials say they want to see these restrictions widen. This desire is most visible in the growing number of “no-platforming” cases at universities, where people are denied invitations to speak, or their invitations are rescinded.

In the UK, radical feminists with views that students consider transphobic have been no-platformed.

Free speech versus ‘safe spaces’

Shakira Martin, president of the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS), said students valued free speech, but stressed that freedom must be balanced with creating safe spaces, particularly for minority groups.

The problem with free speech as we know it is that the playing field is uneven, she said, with some groups given the opportunity to shout louder than others.

“So many of the misunderstood and maligned practices that students have deployed to readdress that balance, such as safe space, are actually about extending free speech to those groups whose voices may not have been traditionally heard,” she told CNN.

‘Safe spaces’ is a very contentious thing. There are a real risk that rules enforcing ‘non-offensive speech’ will neuter free speech.

This is especially a problem in politics, where opponents can claim offence to try to shut down views they are ‘offended’ by – which in reality is often just political ideas and policies they disagree with.

Evening the free speech playing field is also highly contentious. Who gets to decide what is even? How can you rule on evenness before the event, before someone has spoken?

Brash was effectively banned by Massey based on anticipation of what he might say. Some claimed he had had ample speech platforms in the past, had offended some people some of the time, so should be deplatformed.

I have seen people online claiming things like white males should shut up because white males had dominated power and speech in the past and now it was the turn for other groups to have the power and the platforms.

Free speech won’t be balanced by shutting up some groups, by censoring some. It will be enhanced by encouraging and enabling a wider range of speakers and views and politics.

You can’t improve inclusiveness through exclusive rules and pressures.

The debate leaves universities with a difficult balancing act. The UK’s Department of Education is working on creating a clearer set of rules for universities to follow.

In May, Minister for Higher Education Sam Gyimah described the restrictions of free speech at universities as “chilling.” His predecessor, Jo Johnson, said universities should be fined for banning speakers.

Fining universities who don’t comply with no-ban rules sounds like a silly idea to me. Apart from it being a bad approach it would be to easily open to abuse.

Free speech in the digital age

It may not be surprising that a generation that grew up with the internet and social media has different ideas on free speech.

Social media was once hailed as the savior of free speech, offering a platform for marginalized voices. That’s still true, but with it has come more hate speech.

The Internet has enabled as many problems as solutions for free speech.

Laws around the world have not kept up with this major change in the way we communicate, according to Monica Horten, an expert on internet governance policy. At the heart of the problem is scale.

“What you’ve got now are millions of pieces of content going up online by individual people, and that immediately alters the scale of the problem, because the percentage of the content seen as problematic is going to be higher,” Horten told CNN.

After years of backlash from their own users, social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are now regulating problematic content, such as fake news. But that poses its own set of problems, Horten said.

“The whole question of whether private actors should be able to make these kinds of decisions — governments are asking private companies that run these platforms to make decisions about which content should be removed — they are acting as censors and not always within the law.”

Private companies controlling online speech have enormous power of enabling speech, restricting it and censoring it.

Kate O’Regan, director of the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford, agreed that the world was still grappling with how to legislate online content, but said she was concerned at the changing attitudes to free speech.

“I understand people who don’t want to share a platform (with Steve Bannon) — they have the right to make those decisions. But at the end of the day we have to debate the ideas and let that conversation take place,” she said.

“I do think democracy by definition are places where we must allow deep-seated disagreements to be aired and they should be done in a civil manner.”

That highlights some major problems that aren’t easily resolved.

I have found from experience on a range of online forums, especially in the seven years I have been running Your NZ, that the only way of allowing deep-seated disagreements to be aired (that is one of the primary aims of Your NZ) in a civil manner is by human intervention, and that is an ongoing challenge as spats and attacks keep erupting.

I think I have proven that it can be sort of be managed ok, on a tiny scale.

I don’t know how this can be done effectively on a large scale let alone a world wide web scale. Too few people have the inclination or balance, and far too many people want to deliberately upset the balance and upset opponents.

Leave a comment


  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  9th September 2018

    Feminazis in academia:

    Too many spineless Lefty men there too.

    • Joe Bloggs

       /  9th September 2018

      Ah the ‘feminazi’

      – the last bastion of misogynistic iconography

      – the word that sets a speed record for turning the comments section into a septic tank

      – the casual bootstrapping of feminism and mass murder in the name of racial purity – sexist and antisemitic at the same time

      – an anti-feminist star shell to all the other trolls who are just waiting to pile in

      – an ignorant dog whistle that equality for all is petty and irrelevant, that all women support inconsequential issues, pick unnecessary fights and attack free speech rights.

      – a label that turns equality for all into the oppression of men – fear the boogeywoman

      Just like adding KKK to your name Alan WilKKKinson

      • Gezza

         /  9th September 2018

        Keep it real Joe.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  9th September 2018

        Frothy coffee, Joe. You might like to address the moral issue of suppressing research results that feminists disapprove of. But you probably won’t which exposes your ineptitude.

        • Joe Bloggs

           /  10th September 2018

          Let me correct your comment for you, buffoon.

          …the moral issue of suppressing research results that a small group of feminist activists disapprove of…

          Which still doesn’t begin to address the platform of misogyny in your original post when you mobilise the word feminazi

    • Blazer

       /  9th September 2018

      Mr Dunning Kruger in early with the ‘lefty’ vitriol…as usual.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  9th September 2018

        Stick to what you are good at, B: slandering bankers and irrelevant trolling.

  2. The Manning visit seems like little more than a money making promotional tour.

  3. Gezza

     /  9th September 2018

    Own Goal Golriz excercising free speech.

    • Gezza

       /  9th September 2018

      I didn’t find Green MP Golriz Ghahraman’s tweet showing filth literally pouring from Nigel Farage’s mouth offensive

      “– perhaps that’s because I’ve cared for both young children, dogs and horses and am therefore unperturbed by excrement in any form – but it certainly was colourful, and just a short time ago it would have been highly unusual and perhaps even actionable by upset party apparatchiks. Not any more.

      Ghahraman is right when she says the vitriol aimed at people like her, when she speaks out against racist policies (or pretty much says anything in public) is far and away worse than the criticism of those who are actually spouting the racist stuff. We’ve got to a very dangerous point when that’s our reality.”

      More drivel …
      – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

      And an airhead defends her, but says like, everybody who objects to this twit’s stupidity is evil.

      Spare me.

      • PDB

         /  9th September 2018

        People like Golriz & Mau only do harm to that they are trying to promote – they need to watch that video about far-lefties shooting themselves in the foot that was on here a couple of days back. After all, the stick Golriz gets isn’t her fault & nothing at all to do with her lack of maturity & capability, regular bouts of hypocrisy and bad habit of lying about her ‘achievements’ & life story;

        “I’ve never, ever seen anyone get attacked online like Golriz does. She attracts a weird level of creepy men who seem offended, upset and threatened by pretty much everything she says. I can only assume that’s because she’s a woman of colour who has strong opinions.”

        • Gezza

           /  9th September 2018

          Ali’s got her blinkers on again. (Mind you, she took them off for Meka.)

          Ghahraman is an unadulterated, Grade A, self-promoting twit.

          I was wrong about Owngoal though. I’ll admit that. I thought SHE was just an airhead too. Until that tweet. Then I realised she was also a shithead.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  9th September 2018

        God Mau is a blonde fuckwit. Maybe you have to be both to get on TV.

  4. sorethumb

     /  9th September 2018

    It may not be taking hold in New Zealand after widespread criticism of the Massey banning of Brash

    But, as a recent NZ Herald editorial noted, Southern and Molyneux’s views are easily accessed online and not all “have a right to room on other platforms that try to serve the public interest”.

    A visit this week by Nigel Farage attracted only minor protests (and scant interest over what he said)

    This is another example of deplatforming, as when something that would otherwise stoke controversy is ignored?

    • Ignoring is free choice.

      Farage was able to speak to a paying audience. I think there were also interviews outside that.

      I don’t think Farage is of much interest to many Kiwis. He has little to do with us here.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  9th September 2018

        I don’t agree, PG. It was a very significant event and impact for NZ when UK joined the EC. It will still be significant if and when it leaves the EU. Farage is a player in that.

        • But I doubt there are many in New Zealand care much about him coming and talking about it here though.

          • Alan Wilkinson

             /  9th September 2018

            There probably should be. Understanding May’s machinations and European consequences is important.

        • Farage was not just A player, he was THE player. Without his dogged courage and determination to fight for freedom, against the massed ranks of the self-serving, Euro-troughing British and European Establishments, the ordinary people of Britain would never have been offered a referendum on who should govern them. That ludicrous Ghahraman woman has less grasp of the reality facing ordinary folk than my chickens have.

          • Alan Wilkinson

             /  9th September 2018

            Farage is still a player in this. He is threatening to return to politics over May’s debacles.

  5. sorethumb

     /  9th September 2018

    In order not to be banned people on the right have to be ultra careful. Eg I watched to videos about Chemnitz one said they didn’t know the circumstances of the attack but quoted a comment left on a video another said the victim was defending a woman who was being harrassed.
    They are being deplatformed because leftism has become religious dogma

  6. The internet is a big place, so is bound to contain huge amounts of dross. Why should anyone care if we all have unfettered access to it? Unless, of course, they are frightened we might find some nuggets of gold therein, that they would rather hide from us for reasons that are invariably suspect. As for being upset; since when did we humans have a divine right not to be upset?

    No good ever comes to the ordinary people from the curtailment of Free Speech: it is the only weapon they have against despots, and it is invariably despots that try to take it from them. All these arrogant, interfering busybodies should keep their noses out of things they are clearly too intellectually stunted, and/or too cowardly to deal with. Their fatuous, brainwashed utterances have all the originality and thoughtfulness of a speaking clock.

    If I want to listen to a person’s views on a matter I do not expect to be prevented by some infantile whose idea of an intellectually stimulating debate is screaming: “Nigel Farage is full of shit”, thank you very much. And particularly not one who is paid out of the public purse.

  1. Free speech and ‘deplatforming’ — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition

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