Facebook and Free Speech: Reinforcing the Echo Chamber

In this Motherboard article, Vice yesterday highlighted some of the internal changes to Facebook’s policy on acceptable speech after the events of Charlottesville last year.

Facebook Free Speech Policy
Image via Motherboard. Included under the fair use doctrine.

Specifically, it was noted that Facebook distinguish between statements supporting a white nationalist ideology, and white supremacy, with the latter in particular considered to be associated with racism – something prohibited on the platform. In response, there have been arguments that this distinction is meaningless, and that Facebook is effectively allowing Nazis to operate on their network as a result.

Facebook infamously ‘curates’ what its users see through the use of algorithms, and they have faced ongoing criticisms that ‘echo chambers’ are created as a direct result. This was particularly true in light of both Donald Trump’s Presidential election victory, and the outcome of the EU membership referendum in the UK. On a personal note, it was something that first became obvious after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

With this in mind, the question becomes what people actually want or expect Facebook to be. On one hand, the possibility of anybody sharing far right or extremist ideologies is seen as abhorrent and unacceptable, but on the other, the cultivation of echo chambers that distort political and social reality is decried as irresponsible.

Unfortunately, you can’t break through an online bubble by only allowing that which you find inoffensive to be shared.

The obvious response here is that there is a difference between healthy debate and sharing views which are hateful. However, this is something of a liberal utopian ideal which doesn’t actually play out in practice. Argument is messy. Debate isn’t always healthy. People don’t always play fairly. All of this is self-evident and will remain true whenever those with opposing positions come into conflict. Arguably, those beliefs that are considered most heinous are precisely those which need to be heard, challenged, and resisted, and in the same vein, the areas online which foster these biases without question need to be opened up to opposition.

If all we want is Facebook to be a safe space to share pictures of our dogs and holiday photos, then that is one thing. However, that is never going to be the reality, irrespective of what some may claim. Whenever people have space to express themselves, they will share their views on how the world should be. If we want to avoid all of the problems that doing so within the so-called echo chambers brings, then we need to stop reinforcing them by banning the very opposing views that would break them apart in the first place.

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Nazi Pugs Fuck Off

One of the latest cases to spark intense debate around freedom of expression happens to fall in my own back yard. The facts of the ‘nazi pug’ case concerned one Mark Meechan, aka ‘Count Dankula’, who filmed himself training his girlfriend’s dog to react to various phrases such as ‘gas the Jews’, and then posted it on YouTube. In his own words:

“My girlfriend is always ranting and raving about how cute and adorable her wee dog is, and so I thought I would turn him into the least cute thing that I could think of, which is a Nazi”

Meechan was subsequently charged and convicted in a Scottish Sheriff Court under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it an offence to (publicly) communicate a ‘message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’.

Count Dankula

Offensive speech should not be a criminal offence

The accused argued that the video was intended as a joke to noise up his girlfriend, as evidenced by the disclaimer at the outset. This position was rejected by the court, who stated that humour was ‘no magic wand’ to escape prosecution, and that any determination of context was for them to decide.

In passing the sentence, the Sheriff brought up the fact that the accused’s girlfriend didn’t even subscribe to his YouTube channel, and so claimed that as a result the notion that the escapade was in fact intended as a private joke didn’t hold any water. This is important as it demonstrates a deep cultural ignorance of how people communicate in an age dominated by online platforms, but also for what may well be a more interesting point: That the actions could only be classed as an offence under the Communications Act by dint of the fact that the video was posted on a ‘public communications network’. In other words, if the same ‘joke’ had been demonstrated at a house party, down the pub, or even on stage in front of hundreds of people, then it could not have brought about the same kind of prosecution.

This brings about two questions:

  1. Should there be any distinction between posting a video online (or via telephone), and making statements in person? If so, why?
  2. Should anybody ever face jail time for making ‘offensive’ statements?

These are questions that can only realistically be properly addressed by Parliament – not the Sheriff court, though one would have hoped that they would have taken a more liberal approach to statutory interpretation, or that the Procurator Fiscal would have had more foresight to not pursue a conviction.

I’m certainly not alone in my view that the video was tasteless. However, a bad sense of humour should not be enough to justify the possibility of a criminal offence. Further, even if the video was in fact an expression of a genuine conviction (which has not been at issue in this case), then it still should not warrant the possibility of jail time – especially not when the distinction lies on the fact that the statements were made on a ‘public communications network’ rather than in person. Remember, this was not a question of ‘incitement’, but simply offence.

Nazis are not your friends

It appears that in many ways, the court were bound by the statutory terms, and that the 2003 law itself is inadequate, to say the least. However, there is another element to this tale that is worth discussing. Namely, that individuals such as the former leader of the so called English Defence League have come out to associate themselves with the issue, and that not enough has been done to reject those attempts.

The support of the far right is not particularly surprising, as they are increasingly taking up the bastion of free expression to justify their odious positions. I is also understandable that when faced with what you perceive as an unwarranted criminal prosecution that you would welcome any support that you can get, or that the media would try to draw connections where there are none. However, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. If arseholes such as Tommy Robinson whose views you claim to be diametrically opposed to try to co-opt your situation for their own political ends, you have a duty to clearly, loudly, and publicly tell them to fuck off. When the far right started to infiltrate punk culture based on the premise of certain shared values, the Dead Kennedys responded in no uncertain terms.

I don’t and won’t claim to know the politics of the accused in this case, but the situation should be a warning for all who consider ourselves to sit on the liberal end of the spectrum: Be wary of those who seek to use a shared belief in freedom of expression as a trojan horse. Yes, fight for the right of those you disagree with to speak, but don’t let the crows trick their way into your nest as a result.

Meechan has indicated plans to appeal the conviction in order to make a point about freedom of speech, although it is unclear at this point under what grounds he will do so. Either way, whilst this is something I would generally support, it is becoming increasingly tough to do so with the knowledge that each development gives people such as the EDL a platform without any real challenge.


For a more in depth analysis of the law involved in this case, have a look at this post from thebarristerblogger.com.

P.S. I don’t blame the pug.