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Official Ireland accidentally proves an important free speech point

If you tuned into Virgin Media’s The Tonight Show on Monday, you will have seen a panel discussion regarding Elon Musk’s buy-out of Twitter.

As most people have seen by now, Musk, who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” stated that “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

He later added: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”

Now, that sounds pretty reasonable, right? Letting everyone speak their mind and not favouring one side or the other of any issue in a partisan manner – what’s wrong with that?

Well, it depends who you ask. If you ask most ordinary people, saying “I want everyone to be able to speak, including my enemies and those who disagree with me” is a fair and respectable position.

But if you ask Irish journalists and politicians, this is a downright frightening attack on the wellbeing of vulnerable people everywhere. You’d swear yer man was about to say a necromancer’s incantation and summon a legion of racist, zombie conspiracy theorists to rise out of the ground and destroy civilisation as we know it.

And this reaction was highlighted on Virgin Media’s the Tonight Show this week.

The programme featured contributions from Independent Senator Eileen Flynn, Independent.ie editor Fionnán Sheahan, Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan, and Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers.

Notably, all members of the panel (including, it seemed, the host, Claire Brock) appeared to unanimously agree that Elon Musk’s buy-out of Twitter, at the very least, carried with it major concerns. Nobody seemed particularly cheerful or optimistic about the idea.

Senator Eileen Flynn said the move highlighted the need for Ireland to “protect people from marginalised communities.”

“Of course, racism and hatred that goes on on social media – especially on Twitter.”

Flynn continued, saying that the Irish government should enact laws to control speech online:

“So now my question is actually to the Irish government: what are we going to put in place to protect the most vulnerable people within our society? We as a nation have to put in regulations and rules because he [Musk] just wants a free-for-all. For some people, unfortunately, hate speech is free speech, and it’s very hurtful…the government needs to put measures in place as fast as possible.”

This sentiment was echoed by Senator Lisa Chambers.

“Are we doing enough? Well, no, is the short answer,” she said.

“…we’re now passing an online media regulation bill that’s going through the Seanad this week to try and regulate that space, but there are no borders with the internet. So that makes it very difficult.”

She added: “There is an onus on us as a State and as the European Union to try and protect our citizens from this online space, but it is a mammoth task.”

Again, bear in mind: what we’re talking about “protecting people” from here is online speech. Words and opinions on a screen.

Threats are already illegal, as are calls to violence and harassment. And so, the only speech they can possibly be referring to here is speech that is deemed to be rude or offensive (in a legislator’s opinion). Apparently, it is the duty of the State and the EU to “protect” us from this type of speech.

The Independent.ie editor even described Musk as a “megalomaniac billionaire who wants to take over the world,” sarcastically adding “What could go wrong?” He went on to criticise the way in which “conspiracy theories” were spread during the Covid period as an example of the dangers of free speech.

But what’s amusing about all of this is, in a funny way, the discussion was a microcosm of the echo chamber that social media sites like Twitter have become.

Not one person on the panel said “Actually, I think Twitter has become a very stifled place where legitimate dissent has become impossible.” There was zero representation given to those who think that, actually, freedom of speech is more important than hurt feelings.

Nobody brought up absurd cases, such as satire website the Babylon Bee being banned for “misgendering” someone in a joke.

Nobody mentioned the fact that the democratically elected President of the United States (whether you love him or hate him) was silenced in a coordinated fashion by a handful of unelected mega corporations.

While those companies say this was done because he breached their policies, many believe that this was simply political ideologues in Big Tech snuffing out their biggest ideological opponent. You may disagree with that, but is that view not even worth airing or discussing? Should we not even consider whether or not these companies may play a negative role in controlling the conversation?

Nobody brought up the way in which groups like the HSE liberally dolled out “misinformation” stamps during the pandemic on tweets which were, objectively, not misinformation in any possible sense.

There were five people on the panel including the host, and yet none of these valid concerns were raised at all. The audience did not get to hear the other side of this discussion, as if one didn’t even exist.

And that, ironically, is the entire point of this debate.

When social media sites ban certain people from voicing their legitimate opinions, society as a whole loses out on at least 50% of the argument. We can’t have a debate or a democracy under such circumstances, and that is far more dangerous to our civilisation than people being rude to each other on the internet.

Ironically, this programme proved the absolute necessity of what Elon Musk is doing, and why it is so vitally important that his free speech quest succeeds.

 

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