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Editorial: Facebook and Twitter cannot be allowed to police our politics

FACEBOOK claimed today that a four-month-old post by the Morning Star’s international editor, stating nothing more than that Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan had met his lawyers, has been removed as it violates its community standards.

It comes a day after we learned that social media giant Twitter had taken the extraordinary step of blocking scores of accounts belonging to Cuban journalists, including the official accounts of Cuba’s President Raul Castro, the main Cuban communist newspaper Granma and the Communications Ministry.

Novel behaviour? Not really. Twitter and Facebook both decided to shut down accounts from Chinese citizens critical of the protest movement in Hong Kong, with Twitter closing 200,000 people’s accounts last month.

Until April 1.5 million Facebook users followed former Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa.

That gave them access to his trenchant criticisms of his successor Lenin Moreno, who after winning election as the candidate of Correa’s socialist PAIS alliance has betrayed the revolution in office, revoking higher taxes on banks and the rich, cutting public spending, attacking labour law, purging the civil service and subordinating the country’s military and intelligence to those of the United States. Then Facebook decided to shut Correa’s page and silence his voice.

Back in February Twitter was at the same game, closing thousands of Venezuelan accounts which expressed opposition to self-declared “president” Juan Guaido’s bid to seize power.

As with China, the excuse was that these constituted “state propaganda.” In fact the enormous rallies in defence of the Bolivarian Revolution and elected President Nicolas Maduro showed that millions of Venezuelans do oppose Guaido’s US-backed attempt to steal the presidency — a truth obscured in most Western media by a refusal to attend or report on pro-government demonstrations.

Similarly in Hong Kong, demos gathering half a million and more residents in Tamar Park which have condemned violence against the police and public property show that opinion in the territory is deeply divided.

Shutting down the social media activities of one side of that divide only serves to distort and mislead.

If Twitter and Facebook were genuinely concerned about tackling “propaganda,” they might of course be taking action against a US government that fires off unsubstantiated smears against foreign states, or a British government that diverts public funds to cooking up slander about the leader of the opposition.

Of course they are not. What both social media behemoths are doing is policing the limits of acceptable opinion as defined by themselves, probably in conjunction with Western state officials.

It is not only “enemy” states or even the citizens of such states that are the victims: there have been plenty of examples of feminists, socialists, disability rights activists and others finding their social media posts censored or accounts blocked.

Twitter and Facebook are seizing on Establishment angst over the supposedly new, actually thoroughly traditional phenomenon of “fake news,” jumping on calls from liberal and even some left voices for them to take stronger action against it.

In the process they illustrate why unaccountable, privately owned for-profit corporations are unworthy guardians of free speech.

When asked to investigate allegations that Russian-owned TV channels had interfered to promote far-right politicians in Bavaria’s 2018 election, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that “foreign states did not appear to be the most intent on interfering, with non-state networks of far-right activists far more active,” concluding that “Russian state-funded media focused on national and international issues only indirectly tied to the election, promoting one-sided but not false articles on issues such as migration, foreign policy and the war in Syria.” 

Since “one-sided” applies in spades to the content broadcast by the BBC, Sky or Fox News, all this conclusion really states is that the media in question presented different viewpoints from the mainstream narrative, and this was seen as suspicious enough to warrant an investigation.

Social media has allowed grassroots opinion and dissenting views a platform: but that platform is not safe or secure while the field is dominated by big corporations.

As Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has said: “The public realm doesn’t have to sit back and watch as a few mega tech corporations hoover up digital rights, assets and ultimately our money.”

His proposals for a public digital operation that would commission original content and deploy a social media arm could be part of the solution.

In the meantime we must come together to assert our right to challenge the propaganda juggernaut of the Establishment media and reject state or corporate attempts to shut down alternatives.

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