The illiberal notion that words are ‘unsafe’ is being normalized.
Last week, John Oliver ran a puerile critique of Israel on his HBO program Last Week Tonight. Though I’ve never subjected myself to his show, I am aware of the segment because Naor Meningher and Eytan Weinstein, the guys who run a small YouTube channel called Nice Jewish Boys, posted a video debunking the comedian’s claims through a video fisking. After getting 60,000 hits, however, the duo was informed by YouTube that the clip was being blocked for violating the company’s community standards relating to “hate speech.”
Meningher and Weinstein responded, asking the company for an explanation. Two minutes after sending their email — the video they produced, incidentally, was 16 minutes and 15 seconds long — the social–media giant responded: “We have reviewed your content carefully, and have confirmed that it violates our hate speech policies. We know that is probably disappointing news, but it’s our job to ensure YouTube is a safe place for all.”
Needless to say, YouTube doesn’t “carefully” review content. I uncovered all kinds of nasty anti-Semitic videos in mere seconds. I mean, you can watch Goebbels addressing a Nazi rally from 1935 or Hamas leaders offering very similar rhetoric to their adherents in 2021. And so it should be. An open Internet is superior to one that tasks hypersensitive fact-checkers and algorithms to lord over ideas and images. Permitting conspiracy theories to be heard is far preferable to denying users the ability to challenge the calcified media-approved narratives.
Of course, enforcement of “hate speech” bans and “fact-checks” are arbitrary, and their standards of truth are constantly evolving. In today’s environment, two smart people who take time to build a small audience by debunking the mythologies of a high-profile comedian can be shut down without cause — probably over a single complaint — while a man who publicly accuses Jews of having “insatiable appetite for war and killing” can work at YouTube’s parent company, Google.
Yes, Google is a private company. Unlike my friends on the left, who are fine with forcing nuns to buy abortifacients or regulating every morsel of commercial life, I believe in free association and property rights. Yet, it’s no small problem that millions of Americans were blocked from discussing plausible theories about the Wuhan origins of the pandemic simply because it was politically inconvenient. It is no small problem, either, that millions of people were unable to share the New York Post’s reporting on Joe Biden’s corrupt son because partisans run these massive platforms.
I have no good solutions to offer, by the way. My friend David Marcus recently wrote a piece at Fox News arguing that government should step in and regulate social–media fact-checkers who constantly get things wrong. While I’m highly sympathetic to his critique, and his frustration, the notion that the state would do a more effective job dispassionately arbitrating the veracity of facts — or that we should want them to — is delusional. It would be another risk-averse bureaucrat like Fauci, not Aristotle, who is appointed judge. In fact, once the state starts putting its imprimatur on speech, it will be more difficult to challenge assertions of the powerful. The Left already relies on “science” as a cudgel against open debate. What will happen when woke corporations use state-sanctioned fact-checks to regulate speech? We’re better off with the status quo.
In a healthy free society, journalists would be defending open discourse. These days, that industry is teeming with hysterics who champion corporate suppression of speech. The illiberal notion that words are “unsafe” is normalized in college classrooms, newsrooms, and among policymakers in the biggest “open” platforms of communication that have ever existed, and it’s only getting worse. There have been numerous big accounts demonetized or blocked on YouTube because of their purportedly intolerable ideological content. It matters. But big voices often find a way to be heard. The question is how many small shows run by ordinary people such as Meningher and Weinstein, who don’t have big newspapers backing them up, have been excluded from participating in the promised “democratization” of media. Probably a lot more than we know.