I feel like I need to make a few things clear at the start: Katie Hopkins is a singularly awful human-being. She has made a living out of spouting disgustingly racist, classist and homophobic bullshit that is completely indefensible. Her tweets, and other public statements, have undoubtedly caused much pain to those who have been subject to either direct attacks from her or from her hate-filled supporters. The point of this article is not in any way to diminish the hurt that Hopkins has caused or to justify any of the horrific things she has said, and it’s certainly understandable that so many people have been quick to celebrate her cancelling.
Nevertheless, I am arguing that Katie Hopkins should not have been banned from Twitter, and furthermore that Twitter’s recent trend towards censorship will have more damaging democratic consequences than if they simply allowed their platform to be virtually unchecked.
There is a quote, famously misattributed to Voltaire (but actually stated by Evelyn Beatrice Hall) that: “I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it”. Whilst there is clearly a bit more nuance which could be applied to freedom of speech issues, I’d suggest it shouldn’t go much further than the above statement. Freedom of speech means exactly that, no matter how repulsive your views might be. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that anyone would be allowed to post these views on Twitter which, after all, is a private company that has the power to set and enforce rules on what isn’t allowed on their platform.
In my personal opinion however, by setting higher standards than the US First Amendment (the UK has far stricter regulations on free speech which should be fought against)- where essentially everything bar the most extreme and clear incitements of violence is allowed- Twitter is losing that which made it such an innovative and exciting project from the off. Twitter was originally a massive experiment in radical democracy, of free speech applying and being utilised by hundreds of millions of people on a largely equal footing. Ordinary people, with virtually no following can call out to professional athletes, high-ranking politicians and other world-famous celebrities. They can insult, make ridiculous statements, and post jokes which either none or many would find amusing. And that’s really what makes Twitter so great. The fact that people can connect with people all over the world at the click of a button, and say whatever you want.
From a political perspective it can force legislators to explain their decision making, which can often lead to better decisions being made. Take the recent example of Marcus Rashford, who launched a Twitter campaign to force Boris Johnson to make a U-Turn on the issue of providing free school meals to underprivileged children during the pandemic. Politicians, and even corporations, can be in fear of an angry ‘Twitter mob’.
It also means that so much of what goes on in our world, from the ordinary to the sublime, to the ridiculous, gets seen by millions around the globe. This includes brutal and unnecessary war crimes, and acts of horrific police violence. These can get shared without fear of having this material censored by those who are shamed by it. Thus, in many ways, progress can be achieved and minds can be changed.
Here though, I go back to the Evelyn Hall statement and contend that this freedom applied to posting on Twitter has to include things which don’t conform to a broadly liberal view of society. And further still, to include statements which are actively antithetical to that, which seek to divide people based on characteristics we can’t control.
There is a reason why Noam Chomsky, one of the most famous and respected left-wing academics has stated that the “vicious ugly speech” of the KKK should be allowed under the First Amendment, stating: “I don’t feel the right way to deal with disgusting, hateful speech is by banning it”. The American Civil Liberties Union, often decried by conservatives as being a left-wing organisation, actually defended the KKK in a 2012 court case. They argued that “even when the viewpoints are not popular”, they must “protect the free speech rights of all” or risk “having the government arbitrarily decide what is…acceptable speech”. Neither Chomsky or the ACLU can be said to have been tacitly supporting the KKK in defending their free speech rights. The ACLU famously stood with the NAACP during the Civil Rights Movement in America, whilst Chomsky has been critiquing and fighting against racism his whole academic career. Nevertheless, both understood that by adding caveats to rights of expression, the whole notion of free speech is diminished. It is perfectly fine to fundamentally disagree with someone’s opinion, yet believe they have the right to express it on a public platform.
It is important to understand what happens when ‘cancel culture’ removes a supposedly unacceptable opinion from the public sphere. The removal of figures such as Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins from Twitter has allowed both of them to present themselves as martyrs for their particular far-right cause. They are able to claim that they are the modern day embodiment of Jesus, and, as ridiculous as that sounds to us, her supporters will lap it up. ‘The establishment has always been against us, we were right’, they will cry, and this will only embolden them further. I understand the argument many will respond with, that by removing them from Twitter where there are hundreds of millions of people, the potential chance of someone being radicalised to the far-right is decreased. However, in my opinion, those who were on the edge of a conversion to the far right could now be utterly convinced that Hopkins and others have had it correct all along: the woke left, liberal establishment and their cancelling culture once again.
And where do these people go when the key figures are banned from Twitter, and the whole site is deemed to be a liberal cesspit? Well by the looks of things, they’re heading to Parler– an absolute hellhole of far-right, ultra-conservative white nationalism and homophobia. Now filled with names such as Donald Trump Jr., Milo Yiannopolous and Mohammad Bin Salman (and lots of Tory MP’s), the conservatives’ answer to Twitter has already been found to have touted some of the worst anti-semitic, Islamophobic and anti-Black conspiracy theories- crucially- without any chance for liberal-minded people to respond. If ordinary people, those who have been convinced that Twitter is too liberal by the alt-right (with the help of Twitter’s new-found banning powers), it will be incredibly difficult for them to get out of this mindset. Instead, if these things were being said out in the open, on a platform where claiming that George Soros is behind every man-made disaster to befall the earth is likely to generate lots of condemnatory responses, many more people will come to see the statement for the madness that it is.
It was John Stuart Mill who first wrote of the idea of a ‘free marketplace of ideas’ which would lead to falsehoods being separated from facts- that the truth of an argument would eventually come out if everyone had the chance to express their opinions. Obviously, Mill never could’ve imagined the world of social media, though I think he would’ve been a fan. My personal hope from Twitter (and social media in general) is that over time- certainly not immediately- that the platforms ability to highlight the worlds’ ills, and ways to fix them. Which leads me on to another major reason why Twitter’s trend to censorship worries me.
Whilst most on the left cheered the bans of Alex Jones, Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins- to do so is legitimising the use of censorship power by Silicon Valley billionaires. And there is certainly no guarantee this power will consistently be used in ways that are fair, or grounded in reality. I certainly don’t trust Jack Dorsey and others to be the arbiters of truth, and to only use their powers of censorship on racists and homophobes.
Currently, Twitter and other social media sites have deemed certain ideas too radical to be acceptable on their public platforms, but who’s to say this won’t be used against people on the left who challenge the mainstream status-quo. There is already evidence to back this up: Twitter has already banned accounts of members of the Occupy movement, with no explanation, as well as parody accounts mocking Joe Biden and American cable news channels, but also accounts which were deemed to be anti-Saudi. As Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud of Saudi Arabia now owns more of Twitter than Jack Dorsey himself, the new trend to censorship is likely to continue to target people critical of the Saudi regime.
This is the dangerous precedent that has been set by the banning of far-right figures, and the calls to ban others such as Donald Trump, and Nigel Farage. Twitter and others now feel they have a responsibility to label misinformation, and ultimately act as ministries of truth, determining what we should and should not deem acceptable. The trend is towards only allowing a very narrow, mainstream, pro-establishment discourse on social media sites which should be concerning to all. People should be allowed to view opinions from all across the political spectrum, and to make their own minds up on issues based on their own research. The denial of free speech rights to those who are unacceptably radical within the circles of tech entrepreneurs and Saudi Princes, and I don’t think we should be celebrating it regardless of how much better Twitter might seem without Katie Hopkins.