Misinformation, harms and the dangers of online censorship – join the Battle of Ideas on Saturday #imaginebelfast

Alastair Donald is associate director of the Academy of Ideas and co-convenor of the Battle of Ideas festival.

As war rages on the ground in Ukraine, the last month has also been marked by an intensifying battle for control of information and over what can said about this major, possibly epoch-defining event.

Of course, it has long been said that truth is the first casualty of war. Military combat is regularly accompanied by sensationalist or misleading newspaper coverage. During the Vietnam War, the so-called first ‘television war’, access to stories was controlled by the US military. News management and propaganda also accompanied the birth of web-based news outlets in the 1990s at the time of the Yugoslav Wars.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, the dramatic expansion in the scale and scope of social media means that today the focus is the online world. Upon the invasion of the Ukraine, Facebook’s parent company, Meta was quick off the mark, banning Russian outlets Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik from its platforms. Twitter declared it will “label all posts containing links to Russian state-affiliated media outlets”.

When Telegram, a messaging app created by two brothers who left Russia under pressure from President Putin, threatened “to shut down channels related to the war because of rampant misinformation”, they highlighted how news management today is often explicitly pursued around the new battlefield of online ‘misinformation’.

That battle goes way beyond the question of war in Ukraine. Last week, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries published the UK’s Online Safety Bill, a gargantuan Bill that that places control of misinformation at its heart and aims to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online”.

Since its creation over 30 years ago, the world wide web has led to enormous innovations in work, entertainment and social interaction. Today, however, confidence in the progressive potential of the web has faded. Instead, online platforms and apps are increasingly viewed as sites of potential harm. As Dorries put it, “Terrorism, child abuse, cyber bullying, hate speech. These are among a few types of harmful online activity that currently saturate the internet”.

But with Big Tech already at the forefront of controlling what can be said or viewed online, freedom has recently taken a bashing. During the pandemic, YouTube and other sites censored TalkRadio for alleged Covid ‘misinformation’, while a recent BBC Stephen Nolan podcast revealed the extent to which Ofcom, the official broadcast regulator, was willing to silence gender-critical views labelled ‘hate speech’.

The Bill introduces a new category of “legal but harmful” speech and empowers broadcast regulator Ofcom to further control Big Tech companies – including by massive fines running to millions of pounds for platforms that fail to extract desired controls. No wonder many fear this is the end of the free internet as we know it.

An experiment by a civil rights group suggests such fears are valid. Using dummy accounts, Big Brother Watch posted to Facebook historic comments by Boris Johnson, Nadine Dorries and Angela Rayner. Subsequently, the comments by Johnson on “burka letter boxes”, Dorries’s “nail your balls to the floor” tweet and Raynor’s “shoot your terrorists and ask questions second” remark were all removed for being offensive.

When even the comments of politicians who are introducing and supporting the Bill can be removed, surely this is cause for alarm. Dorries disputes this arguing “It’s not about ‘cancelling’ anyone. In fact, it contains stringent new protections for freedom of speech and journalism.”

This speaks to a Government at odds with itself – on the one hand keen to promote itself as a defender of free speech, for example, currently piloting through Parliament a Bill on academic freedom. On the other, such freedoms are consequently sacrificed, for example when Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi recently promised to “crack down hard” on academics who question the Government’s line on war in Ukraine.

Few would deny that the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories can in some circumstances have significant impacts. Or that online hate speech can be deeply unpleasant, sometimes even traumatic. But the transformation of the online world into a space to be feared due to anonymity, falsehoods, harms and excess, raises questions about where we draw the boundaries of control.

For those who harboured hopes and continue to believe that the online exchange of information and ideas could be a boost to knowledge and debate, and even fuel a more enlightened society, questions around misinformation and harm raise important questions as to how the online experience might be defended and developed – as a site of potential liberation as it was once envisaged, and hopefully still can be.

Whatever your view, these issues are surely worth discussing.

Which is exactly what we’ll be doing this Saturday at the Belfast Battle of Ideas.

Over the course of three panel discussions, we’ll look at how we should respond to new controls on misinformation, what students and universities can do to create an atmosphere of free speech and open debate that benefits all on campus, and how, when cultural boycotts are proliferating, we can make the case for artistic freedom.

Everyone is welcome. We’d love to see you there.

The Belfast Battle of Ideas takes place from 2pm on 26 March in the Crescent Arts Centre as part of the Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics which runs until Sunday.

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