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12 Jan, 2021 10:21

Twitter’s hypocritical censorship: Misinformation on Western Covid vaccines banned, falsehoods about Russia's Sputnik V permitted

Twitter’s hypocritical censorship: Misinformation on Western Covid vaccines banned, falsehoods about Russia's Sputnik V permitted

Twitter has censored numerous users, including Iran's Supreme Leader, for criticism of Western Covid-19 vaccines, but “respectable” Western journalists can spread misinformation and distrust in Russia’s Sputnik V with impunity.

The American social media giant announced in December that its censorship would expand to include coverage of Covid-19 vaccines as “vaccine misinformation presents a significant and growing public health challenge – and we all have a role to play.”

As always, altruistic and moral arguments for imposing suppression of information increase support from the public. Ending harmful misinformation about vaccines is a common interest that everyone can get behind. However, once there is acceptance for the blue pencil – society inevitably transforms itself.

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“Harmful speech” and “hate speech” are ambiguous concepts. Silicon Valley monopolies are entrusted with defining and detecting these transgressions, which grants them immense political power by effectively becoming real-life versions of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

Selective application of censorship is unavoidable. This is not a bug but a feature of Silicon Valley’s social media platforms. It is the exercise of inconsistent and politically motivated censorship that endows the tech-oligarchs with political power. Censorship is steadily growing against both foreign and domestic adversaries.

Censoring vaccine misinformation

Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was censored by Twitter for his criticism of Western-made Covid-19 vaccines: “Importing vaccines made in the US or the UK is prohibited. They’re completely untrustworthy. It’s not unlikely they would want to contaminate other nations.” The need to counter “harmful speech” supposedly required Twitter to censor Iran’s Supreme Leader.

Yet, in the West, mainstream journalists are free to bash Russia’s Sputnik V without censure. In the absence of evidence, media folk substantiate their anti-vaccination arguments with references to Putin’s supposedly nefarious intentions.

However, Silicon Valley thought police is suddenly not concerned about politically motivated attacks on a vaccine.

Censoring Supreme Leader

Reasonable arguments can be made that Ayatollah Khamenei is paranoid, yet this conclusion cannot be made by limiting debate. From Tehran’s perspective, paranoia is warranted: The CIA ran a fake vaccination program in Pakistan in the effort to obtain DNA samples from Osama Bin Laden. The US and Israel previously launched the Stuxnet cyber-attack against Iran’s nuclear centrifuges that could have caused another Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

In the 1980s, the US supplied Iraq with chemical weapons to invade Iran, which resulted in killing tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers and civilians, while survivors to this day still need medical treatment. In more recent history, Washington imposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, which severely constrain its ability to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. From Khamenei’s perspective, it is “not unlikely” the US would tamper with the vaccines.

But for arguments sake, let’s say Khamenei is merely a radical zealot disseminating conspiracy theories. Is it not the point of free speech that weak arguments must be exposed to scrutiny rather than given the protective cover of censorship? Also, is it not worth knowing the perspective of an adversarial world leader? The Silicon Valley oligarchs have determined it is not.

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Censoring political opponents

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have now also banned President Trump from their respective platforms indefinitely. Trump’s “harmful speech” was deemed by Silicon Valley to have contributed to the disgraceful storming of Capitol Hill by MAGA supporters.

The shameful event seemed to bring the Democrats and Republicans together in mutual condemnation. Several key Republicans have distanced themselves from Trump due to his irresponsible language, and even many Trump supporters recognize that Trumpism must now continue without its central figure.

However, the event is becoming a Reichstag moment. Hyperbolic language such as “coup attempt,” “domestic terrorism”, and “white supremacy” by the political-media class is legitimizing more censorship to purge the political Right. Even moderately conservative websites are censored. Republican Senator Marco Rubio cautions that Biden is attempting “to use this terrible national tragedy to try and crush conservatives or anyone not anti-Trump enough.”

The Pandoras’ Box of censorship is open and it is unclear what will dictate the rules for acceptable speech. It is argued that if their own president can be censored and banned from social media, why then not also the leaders of adversarial states from Venezuela to China? And why not censor the journalists who supported or made excuses for the violent Black Lives Matter riots that brought havoc to US cities, led to multiple deaths, and divided society? Will Silicon Valley also censor journalists and politicians who supported coups against the democratically elected governments in Bolivia or Ukraine?

Much like the approach to vaccine misinformation, censorship will be done on an ad-hoc basis. The question is, therefore, not what should be censored, but who will make the decision.

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Responding to censorship

The consequences of digital censorship are predictable: Foreign states which emphasise sovereignty, such as Russia, may well follow China's example and decouple from the US run ecosystem and nationalize their digital realms. The domestic American political opposition have less options to find new outlets and will be radicalized.

Both China and Russia have developed their own digital platforms. Under pressure from Washington, Google sought to undermine China by suspending its Android license agreements with Huawei in May 2019. China and Russia responded by deepening their tech-partnership. China is developing its own HongMeng operating system and cooperating with Russia’s Aurora operating system.

Can American conservatives also decouple from the liberal digital platforms? In response to the growth of selective censorship, American conservatives are migrating from Twitter and Facebook to Parler. But now, in a coordinated attack, Google and Apple have suspended the Parler app and Amazon has wiped Parler off the internet by expelling the platform from its servers.

It’s merely about vaccine disinformation?

Expanding the censorship of “harmful speech” to the sphere of public health intensifies the erosion of trust in the political-media class. Irrespective of the moral arguments and common interest of censoring vaccine misinformation, the control over information cannot be decoupled from power interests.

As Silicon Valley would never censor misinformation about Russia’s Sputnik vaccine or harmful language by the Democratic Party, the only solution is no censorship at all.

The alternative of outsourcing the defense of public health and democracy to the selective censorship of tech-oligarchs will continue to fragment the information space, both between and within nations.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.