Conspiracy theories, falsehoods have no place in freedom of speech debates. Social networks need to find their backbones

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A very interesting debate about free speech is unfolding over the banning by Facebook, Apple and YouTube – but controversially not Twitter – of notorious right-wing internet troll Alex Jones and his Infowars conspiracy channels.

Jones is a divisive figure, loved by a large clique of right-wingers who believe what he spouts, but which is patently nonsense to anyone who reads and watches the news. In the last few months his factually untrue ranting has become the epicentre of a debate about freedom of speech on social media.

Free speech should be protected, goes the mantra most right-thinking people agree on, often citing the famous quote attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Amusingly, this apex censorship quote is itself controversial, which some dispute about whether he said it, or it was said about him by his friends in a biography.

Understanding free speech has never been easy. But what happens if it is inflammatory, or just plain wrong?

Does the mandate to be allowed to express an opinion still have the same weight if the content is patently untrue?

That’s the problem with Infowars, it’s just not true. The conspiracy theory site run by Jones, who has a significant media following, is notorious for its years-long denials of the horrific Sandy Hook school massacre and of the Holocaust. An example of his convoluted logic is his attack on David Hogg, a survivor of this year’s Parkland school shooting who is calling for better gun control: “The Nazis did wear armbands, David Hogg wears one. The Nazis were a youth movement, they didn’t want the guns. And so if the shoe fits, wear it.” Huh?

After much hand-wringing deliberation Facebook finally took down his pages last week – only after CEO Mark Zuckerberg humiliated himself by defending the right of Holocaust deniers to claim the Holocaust never happened in a now infamous podcast in July. That he’s Jewish himself is beside the point, but should heighten his perception of the hurtfulness of such denialism. Facebook has been allowing such hate speech and other drivel to be published on its pages and news feed for years, including in Myanmar.

Zuckerberg said: “I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong”.

That will go down in the annals of history as one of the dumbest things ever said by a CEO; in stark contrast to the actual truth.

Apple and Spotify removed Jones’s podcasts and YouTube eventually took down his videos. But Twitter – which is known for its equivocation and lack of action – said he had not violated its terms and conditions – until CNN’s Oliver Darcy pointed out how many times he had. So they suspended him for a week. Really. A week.

The problem faced by social networks is their fear of a backlash from conservatives in the United States, as well as how much traffic they seem to get from these posts.

Free speech is obviously important, as we well known from our years of Apartheid censorship. But blatantly false conspiracy theories are not. Social networks need to find their backbone, establish a moral core and stand up for real freedom of speech, not this fake drivel.

This article first appeared in Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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