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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Clarence Page: Facebook is right to boot abusers such as Farrakhan, Jones and Yiannopoulos

By Clarence Page Tribune News Service

Facebook has permanently banned several hate-spewing firebrands, including Chicago-based Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, Infowars host Alex Jones and former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, for being extremist and “dangerous.” It’s about time.

My normal default position is to push back against censorship of speech. The best response to offensive speech, as civil libertarians say, is more speech – counterspeech that offers opposing views.

But the digital age has brought us a new “normal,” even for Facebook.

The First Amendment, it is important to note for those who don’t remember it from their schooling, protects us Americans against infringements on free speech and free press by government. But the amendment also protects the right of private individuals and companies to decide what sort of content can be posted on their private platforms.

With the rise of hate groups and dangerous anti-science propagandists such as the anti-vaccination cults that feed the current resurgence of measles as a global menace, Facebook and other social networks have felt increasing pressure to follow the spirit of one of Google’s original mottoes: “Don’t be evil.”

Calls for Facebook to be more transparent and trustworthy surged after revelations last year that consumer data had been mishandled, most notably in Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of the personal data in millions of Facebook users’ profiles without their consent and using it for political purposes.

That mess was followed by media revelations that personnel in Myanmar’s military have been using the platform like a Russian troll factory, spreading hatred behind fake identities to inflame hatred of the country’s beleaguered Muslim Rohingya minority.

As Facebook’s stock price fell in the second half of 2018, calls for tighter regulation and policing of online hate soared. But so, quite reasonably, has concern about censorship. Who will Facebook ban next?

That depends. I was reluctant to ban Farrakhan, for example, after years of observing the good that his unarmed security and social service organization, the Fruit of Islam, has done to help rehabilitate prison inmates and police public housing developments.

But I also believe that, if we’re all going to continue to live together peacefully in this very diverse country, we need to ostracize anti-Semitic conspiracy rhetoric and innuendo by Farrakhan just as we would if it came from, say, President Donald Trump. The president has more power, to be sure, but Facebook should feel as obligated as anyone else to avoid giving a platform to social poison.

The internet empowers and accelerates the growth of countless ideas and causes, both good and bad.

We see its tragic effectiveness in linking young, resentful and mostly white men who find each other through social networks like 8chan, an anonymous message board and stewpot of racial and gender hatreds that was used by the recent mass shooters in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Poway, Calif.

The online romanticization of hate has led to such loony – and dangerous – developments as the targeting by white nationalist groups of bookstores and library events in multiple states, as wide-ranging as Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., and Revolution Books in Berkeley, Calif., which one protester threatened with arson, according to the Washington Post.

Not coincidentally, the Washington protest – which lasted only a few minutes as onlookers booed – interrupted a reading by Vanderbilt psychiatrist Jonathan M. Metzl of his new book, “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland.”

The book argues that today’s right-wing politics fuel the scapegoating of immigrants and other minorities to distract us from conservative policies that have shortchanged low-income whites in health care and other benefits.

That’s a point worthy of civil debate. But protest leader Patrick Casey, identified by the Post as co-founder of the white-nationalist American Identity Movement, said through a megaphone that Metzl “would have the white working class trade their homeland for handouts.”

That, too, is worthy of civil debate. But in a political culture where ideas turn into tribes of like-minded people in internet silos, untouched by alternative views, protesters on the left and right seem to be dangerously content with marching into other people’s events, shouting or chanting a few slogans and walking out.

“Propaganda ends where dialogue begins,” r communications theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote. Social networks can’t police everything that is posted on their platforms, but when they see something that poisons that dialogue, they have not only a right but an obligation to remove it.

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.

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