US President Donald Trump has chosen to use his powerful platform to defend the free speech of conspiracy theorists as his allies visit the White House and criminalise political dissent at home.
US President Donald Trump expressed his deep concern over the weekend for the First Amendment rights of an alt-right British citizen banned from Facebook.
But Watson’s alleged persecution by Facebook is enough to make him an American citizen in Trump’s eyes: “I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH! We are monitoring and watching, closely!!”
Americans were also among those Facebook decided had spread enough racist conspiracy theories. But Trump indeed retweeted the Brit in question, Paul Joseph Watson, on another US-based social media platform, Twitter. Watson hasn’t worn out his welcome there, yet.
Much sound and fury were made out of Trump’s retweets of far-right conspiracy theory-laden accounts, and sure, it’s shocking, I guess. But what should concern Americans is that Trump is gifting at will First Amendment rights to a citizen of a foreign power: the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately for Watson, he does not have those rights but instead must make do with the lukewarm shepherd’s pie of statutes that allow British people to say things legally. However, having a Facebook account outside the United States does not mean First Amendment rights apply to you.
Indeed, you are simply a product social media companies sell to advertisers, and they can issue a recall of you as quickly as Pepsi can pull Crystal Pepsi off the shelves. It’s nothing personal.
This is a question of protecting shareholder value for owners of Facebook stock, not granting rights to British people. Sucks to be them. Just like it sucks to be an American, treated like expendable cattle by the private healthcare industry.
It is noteworthy, however, that Trump will carelessly grant First Amendment rights to a man who bleats on and on about immigrants corrupting Western civilisation and how September 11 was an “inside job,” orchestrated by some shadowy globalists. Watson could shout all this from the rooftops inside US territory, even as an immigrant or visitor.
However, based in West Blurbyshire-on-Stout or “London” or whatever, Watson must submit to his Queen, who is presumably fine with UK laws on speech far more restrictive than the US. She has yet to dissolve parliament, declare martial law, and adopt the language of the First Amendment as the law of the land in fair Albion.
After all, who needs all that hassle when there are corgis to pet?
Generously, however, Trump came to the defence of this refugee from a Facebook purge that included Watson’s employer, InfoWars, a US-based conspiracy theory peddler. The mini-media empire has targeted the grieving families of murdered children as “crisis actors” pretending an assault rifle-wielding killer gunned down their kids.
Jones, responding to a lawsuit brought by these parents, confessed he said what he said because of a bout of “psychosis.”
Trump’s liberal attitude towards free speech does not extend, however, to people who do not agree with him, people whose languages he can’t read or people who talk about things unrelated to Trump. There has been no conference of First Amendment rights from Trump to non-American human beings caught up in US ally Egypt’s crackdown on dissent on Facebook.
Trump could, of course, invoke the United Declaration of Human Rights to criticise the detention of political prisoners around the world, who organised on Facebook against repressive regimes. But those activists never did Trump any favours. He owes them nothing. But Watson is on Trump’s side, so he gets a coveted retweet from the most powerful person in the world.
Accidentally, of course, Trump made an interesting point about the Americanness of social media and the Internet itself. The technology behind it was first pioneered in American universities, and American foreign policy encouraged the development of international communications networks. But that technology does not come with it a guaranteed right to free speech, as people in the US enjoy to a greater degree than even their counterparts in Canada.
At the twilight of the American empire, one can see the Internet as akin to the roads the Romans left behind, upon which Goths could tread just as easily as centurions. But when the Romans built them, they did not consider that the road could send troops as easily as convey invaders.
The United States lost hegemony over the Internet as it expanded across the world, and in its place have arisen new identities, some innocuous or helpful and others malign and nihilistic. Watson, according to Facebook, falls in the latter category.
Meanwhile, other conservative Twitter personalities have added to Trump’s deceptive strategy, by claiming that people have a right to “unfiltered info.”
“When did we decide, as Americans, that it's ok fo govt & 3d parties to censor/ curate our info? That we cannot be trusted with unfiltered info? That we shd only be able to find info that *they* tell us is true on matters that are opinion or in legitimate dispute? #SlipperySlope,” Sheryl Atkinson, a commentator who has convinced herself vaccines are unsafe, tweeted after Facebook’s decision. She tells other people vaccines are unsafe, and that reports of measles outbreaks are widely overstated.
Atkinson is an excellent example of what “unfiltered info” can do, as she encourages parents to endanger the lives of their children and others by foregoing vaccines. Perhaps having 24-hour access to the nervous breakdowns of Alex Jones is not good for our reasoning abilities or grip on reality.
Trump, although he recently uttered a lukewarm endorsement of this public health measure, is like an anti-vaxxer, in a sense, but instead of vaccines, Trump attacks the conceit of modern civilisation that all human beings are entitled to equal rights.
To Trump, there are people who have done something for him lately, like Watson, and then there’s everybody else. Losers. Dumb!
Egalitarianism and empathy let modern society function, just as sure as vaccines and clean water keep diseases in check. Both, however, are vulnerable to the promulgation of rumour and lies, the “unfiltered info”. As Atkinson does, Trump encourages people to question the humanity of other people and puts the world at risk doing so.
But Facebook and Twitter can’t ban him. He’s the president.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to firstname.lastname@example.org