Sunday, December 27, 2020

VK, Tommy Robinson, and the Narrowing Window of Online Free Speech

If, like me, you've been looking for a social-media platform that values free expression, your semi-viable options are few. For a Facebook replacement, you have Gab, MeWe, and Minds. For Twitter, you have Parler. For YouTube, you have Bitchute, Odysee, and maybe Rumble.  

I have accounts at most of those sites. In addition to those, I signed up at VK as another Facebook alternative, as VK had a reputation for leaving people alone. Even though VK never explicitly claimed to be a haven for free speech, English-speakers, being a minority on the platform, tended to fly under the radar. 

Well, that's all changed now, as VK appears to have succumbed to the woke rage mobs in canceling Tommy Robinson and his Britain First page.  

I don't always agree with Tommy Robinson, but I can safely say that his commentary has never risen to the level of "hate speech," which is what his page was ostensibly taken down for. 

For those unfamiliar, Britain First is just that -- a nationalist group that strives to uphold and protect English and British tradition and culture. Tommy Robinson doesn't have kind things to say about unfettered immigration, or about Islamic extremism -- but note that those criticisms are aimed at policies and positions, not at people.

For context, an American parallel to Robinson and Britain First might be something along the lines of Ammon Bundy and his tireless work to defend individual liberties against the encroachments of intrusive government, or James O'Keefe's Project Veritas, with its undercover journalism that likewise aims to expose government corruption. In fact, for his efforts on behalf of his native land, Robinson won the 2020 Sappho Award from Denmark's International Free Press Society, given to uncompromising journalists.    

Meanwhile, VK, for those not in the know, is basically Russia's Facebook. Many people who have been kicked off Facebook, or are just sick of being fact-checked and shadow-banned in favor of pushing a leftist political narrative, have ended up there. Mainstream media outlets, predictably, have characterized VK as a haven for Nazis, just as they've done with Parler and Gab. People sick of Silicon Valley's censorship are flocking to these sites, and the media, not wanting you to go someplace where they can't keep you from freely discussing the events of the day outside of the confines of their "official narratives," are working overtime to demonize alt-tech with outright lies, in hopes that you won't go there and enjoy, much less exercise, your freedom of speech.

I've been trying to beat the drum for VK as a good alternative to Facebook. For one thing, it functions almost identically to Facebook, so there's virtually no learning curve. For another, it's one of the 20 most visited websites in the world -- which means that, unlike these much smaller startups that may or may not make it, VK isn't going anywhere. Plus, being based in Russia, it's beyond the reach of whatever whims U.S. politicians might cook up in an attempt to control online communications.

Those factors, combined with its generally laissez-faire attitude toward free expression, made using VK a no-brainer.  

Not that VK has ever taken a completely anything-goes approach to its platform, mind you. In the time I've been there, I've seen several accounts taken down for actual TOS violations, like spamming and harassment -- the kind of things you couldn't even do at the likes of Gab or Minds. Those are legitimate take-downs.  

But this was no TOS-based ban. It appears that a small handful of woke anti-free-speech crusaders set up shop at VK with the express purpose of taking down Tommy Robinson and his page. As so many do, VK appears to have bowed to the pressure of the rage mob. 

Seemingly key to the attack was a user who goes by the handle of "Bless Uzo," who's been gloating about the takedown, admits to using multiple accounts -- which surely made the volume of complaints to VK look more widespread than they actually were -- and otherwise uses his or her page to celebrate censorship, the latest (as of 12/27) being the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from the U.S. Capitol building.  

That these modern-day witch-hunters have nothing better to do than seek out and attack people and viewpoints they dislike would be disturbing enough in itself. But when institutions bow to their demands, they only magnify the threat to free speech.

What these puritanical woke zealots fail to understand is that canceling other people creates a slippery slope that will eventually be turned around on them. That's why you fight to defend the views even of people you dislike. As Noam Chomsky once observed, "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, then we don't believe in it at all." And the woke intolerance for opposing views can inevitably lead in only one direction -- toward authoritarianism and tyranny. 

So, to be clear, this isn't specifically about Tommy Robinson or Britain First. This is about what happens when institutions begin to justify silencing voices for arbitrary reasons. It starts with so-called fringe extremists like Alex Jones or Milo Yiannopoulos, but the definition of "extremism" and "hate speech" always expands ever wider, until the net of censorship begins to scoop up those who have done nothing more than utter an opinion contrary to someone else's ideology.  

And that's why you fight. Not because you're necessarily endorsing someone else's point of view, but because if you have a right to express your point of view, then others have a right to do the same, even if you might find the opposing point of view distasteful.  

After all, living in a free society means that other people get to do and say things I might disagree with. History has shown us where the alternative leads.

And so I bid farewell to VK, as I refocus my efforts on the smaller alt-tech startups that actually claim to champion free expression. May their efforts prevail in a climate that's growing increasingly hostile to free expression.

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