During the Coronavirus crisis, YouTube have worked to try and filter out what they deem as disinformation on CoVid. The first big example of this was removing David Icke’s channel from the site after he’d done a few videos on the virus from his own unique standpoint. For some of you, this might be easily justified – Icke dabbles in extreme conspiracy theory mongering, the most famous example being his assertion that the world is run by shape-shifting lizards. I am not here to defend Mr Icke’s views. Yet I think that removing his channel was the wrong decision. Not just on abstract free expression grounds either, but because of what has happened in this decision’s wake, demonstrating why free speech is so vital.
Karol Sikora, a professor of medicine, had a video of his removed from YouTube a few weeks back. It argued that we could learn some things from Sweden and potentially loosen lockdown more quickly. After some kerfuffle it was put back on the site – yet the fact that it had been removed in the first place is noteworthy. Again, I’m not asking you to agree with Sikora in any way. Yet surely simply offering an alternative viewpoint on this crisis shouldn’t be censored. Then we come to Peter Hitchens and his video. Hitchens has been an outspoken critic of the lockdown since it was put into place. YouTube did not take this video down; instead, it made it very, very difficult to find, ensuring that it does not come up in any searches one might do to try and find the video. I attempted to find it myself – unless you go to the channel it featured on itself and scroll through, you won’t find the video.
Again, I’m not asking you to agree with either Sikora or Hitchens. But when we start narrowing the debate like this it has an impact on everyone. You might say that this is a one-off crisis and thus the stricter definition of what can and cannot be said is justified. Yet history shows us that when this process is started it is difficult to reverse. I also don’t happen to think that trying to curate a common view on CoVid via censorship helps anything either. It doesn’t crush conspiracy theories – it actually fuels them, as those propagating the theories can point to actual, concrete repression as supposed partial proof. Coronavirus is a massive event in all of our lives and a discussion about it must take place, even if some of the things said are unpleasant to many people. Otherwise, resentment will fester and that will come out in unpleasant ways; viewpoints will become more extreme.
Some will argue that YouTube is a private company and is free to curate the material on it as it sees fit. Yet that then opens them up to what Trump is talking about in terms of them losing their neutrality provisions. If they curate what goes on the site, they should then become responsible for what’s there, which seems fair to me. In other words, YouTube is either a neutral platform for content or it consciously curates what is on the site. It cannot be both at the same time.
For left-wing readers, let me turn this around on you. What if YouTube decided to censor any video promoting socialism? Its justification being that socialism was an ideology that resulted in millions of deaths in the 20th century and that no reasonable person could adhere to its tenets as a result. Just for clarity, I would be against YouTube doing such a thing myself absolutely. Whatever my own personal view on something, I think that unless something directly incites violence, I think it should be allowed to be heard.
Free speech can be messy. I understand in some ways YouTube being worried about disinformation during this crisis and the possibility that it could risk human life. Yet I still believe in the end that the debate must be allowed to take place. Once you shut down one voice, you start shutting down others until your justification for shutting anyone and everyone down starts to become hazy. You start with the David Icke’s of this world and pretty soon you’re censoring anyone with an opinion that deviates even slightly from the norm. Censoring extremism doesn’t shut extremism down either – it simply makes martyrs of those who have been silenced. Maybe we all need to grow up a little and accept that sometimes people disagree with us and that this does not necessarily make them evil. That this is a radical thought in 2020 says a lot about the era we live in.
I have a new book out now. It’s called “Politics is Murder” and follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. The plot takes in Conservative Party conference, a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
It’s available here: