Faith Goldy was kicked off Facebook this week. Most people neither know nor care, but maybe you should. Ms. Goldy is a YouTube broadcaster and political commentator who thinks that Canada has too much non-white immigration. You and I may think her views – which have been described as promoting white nationalism – are vile. But unlike some hard-core supremacists, she doesn’t blatantly preach violence or hate. In my opinion, she’s the kind of person free-speech laws are supposed to protect.
Our Liberal government doesn’t agree. It appears delighted that Facebook shut her down. The Liberals are getting serious about regulating Facebook and other social-media giants, and with this ban it looks like they are also getting action.
These days, social-media companies are being blamed for a mountain of social ills – for spreading extremist content and fake news, for violating people’s data privacy on a massive scale, for delivering harmful material to children, inciting teen suicide, and much else. A U.S. politician compared Facebook to Big Tobacco, and wants the company to be investigated for antitrust behaviour.A parliamentary inquiry in the U.K. called Facebook and its executives “digital gangsters.”Not to be outdone, New Zealand’s privacy commissioner accused Facebook’s management of being “morally bankrupt pathological liars who enable genocide.”
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, may or may not be morally bankrupt. But he obviously sees which way the wind is blowing. And he knows he’s got to get out of the gale. Two weeks ago he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, calling for a more active role for regulators and governments. “Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree,”he wrote. “I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”
In other words, he wants to get Facebook off the hook for policing content. Let regulators and governments decide what’s fake news or hate speech and what’s not. Facebook’s most urgent job is to stay out of that quagmire and get back on good terms with governments. That’s the only way it will be able to keep making lots and lots of money.
How to regulate content on social media giants will be among the bigger policy quandaries of our age. A parliamentary committee in Britain already has a few ideas. Among other things, it wants a powerful independent regulator that could block access to websites and impose heavy fines on individual executives who allow objectionable content online. But every country will take its own approach, and some (Singapore, for instance, where criticism of the government is censored) will be more restrictive than others.
Right now the crusade against social media excesses is immensely popular with both politicians and the public. “Hatred will not be tolerated in Canada,” Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister, tweeted earlier this week, after Faith Goldy as well as other far-right commentators and extremist groups were banned, "and we all have a role to play in making sure our communities are safe, including online. Facebook’s decision to ban accounts that spread hate & white nationalism is a step in the right direction.”
What Mr. Trudeau didn’t mention was the other reason why Liberals seem thrilled by Faith Goldy’s banishment from Facebook. They’re using her as part of their long-running effort to paint Andrew Scheer, the Opposition leader, as a man who consorts with right-wing extremists. In other words, the worse she looks, the worse he looks. As proof of their connection, they point to the fact that Ms. Goldy and Mr. Scheer recently showed up at the same rally (although not together). Karina Gould, the same minister who’s playing tough with Facebook, was quick to make the connection earlier this week. "It is of note that the leader of the Official Opposition has been associated with the individual in question and we would call on him to apologize to Canadians, as well as to distance himself from these kinds of views,” she told reporters.
Which shows that politicians are not averse to fake news, so long as it’s manufactured by them.
Personally, I think society should be able to tolerate the likes of Ms. Goldy on social media. There’s a vast distance between her and the Canadian Nationalist Front or the Wolves of Odin, two hard-core white-supremacist groups that were also banned this week. But this is probably a minority view. In an era where the power and reach of social media are exploding, all the momentum is on the side of censorship and suppression. But the essential questions are the same as ever: Who’s doing the deciding? How much political influence might be exercised on such decisions? What happens when hate speech is really speech the government doesn’t like?
My bet is that we’ll be trading speech for security for a long time to come. Will that really make us safer, as Mr. Trudeau claims? Well, that’s another matter.