Opinion: Jones, Cottrell and ‘censorship’ questions

Infamous: United Patriots Front  leader Blair Cottrell is seen exiting the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Thursday, July 19, 2018. Cottrell was appealing his 2017 hate speech conviction over a mock beheading in protest over a Bendigo mosque.
Infamous: United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell is seen exiting the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Thursday, July 19, 2018. Cottrell was appealing his 2017 hate speech conviction over a mock beheading in protest over a Bendigo mosque.

It’s been a long time since I heard anyone say, with a ‘lighten-up’ beseech, that “it’s just the internet!”

This week, digital heavyweights Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest removed U.S. far-right broadcaster and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from their platforms. 

Jones, who runs InfoWars, is currently embroiled in a legal battle with the parents of a Sandy Hook victim after he espoused claims that the 2012 school massacre didn’t happen.

The parents of the many slaughtered children have experienced harassment and death threats as a result, including one family who have moved seven times since the event because online fabulists have continually published their address and stalked them.

It’s lazy writing to pull in Holocaust metaphors to lend impact to your argument, not to mention often belittling to the true horror of the actual event. But the parallels of denialism in this case are hard to walk by.

The conversation around censorship is bubbling in the wake of Jones’ self-described ‘purge’ from accessing private companies who, through some cunning legalities contained in the 1000-word terms and conditions we routinely lie about reading, don’t owe him – or any other user – squat. 

One of the earliest lessons I remember learning is that there’s two sides to every story. But does that mean a public platform for career-provocateurs who harm people with misinformation and shock tactics? Do they really represent the ‘other’ side of a balanced, democratic coin? 

Back home, United Patriot’s Front leader Blair Cottrell, who advocated for hanging a picture of Hitler in every Australian classroom, received an interview slot on Sky News this week. Public outcry and advertiser chaos coincided with a swift withdrawal of the slot from Sky News online and an almost-apology from news director Greg Byrnes.

The increasing Fox-ification of Sky News in their after-dark programming aside, Cottrell, a self-employed builder from Melbourne, made himself infamous through his pro-anglosphere views that align with neo-Nazi ideology.

Cottrell, who declared ‘Yes, I am a racist’ on ABC2’s Hack Live in 2016, was convicted of inciting contempt and ridicule of Muslims last year and has also called into question the evidence of the bloody indigenous massacres that splatter Australian history. 

Increasingly, I see people lauding mainstream media like Fairfax as ‘fake news’. But the term ‘news’ has been hijacked by commentators like Jones and Cottrell, who use the framework of the Fourth Estate as a platform for, well, whatever they’d like. 

It’s worth noting that the threat of censorship is making waves because privileged white males are having their platforms withdrawn. But commentators like Jones and Cottrell, who so proudly defend their own right to ‘free speech’, are themselves censoring the voices of the many people they squash with their dangerous views. 

The term ‘news’ has been hijacked by commentators like Jones and Cottrell.

Last week, Australian commentator and media professional Osman Faruqi tweeted about the lack of adaptability of the Australian people in light of the reaction to the plastic bag ban. After his mobile number was released online, Faruqi was harassed with wave after wave of threatening, racially-motivated calls and messages.

The reaction was shared and widely seen with thousands of likes and retweets before Faruqi took an indefinite hiatus from the platform. His number was shared by the anti-Islamic right-winger Avi Yemini, who also appears regularly on Sky News. Go figure. 

Cottrell, in reacting to his removal from Sky News online, tweeted that he “might as well have raped [journalist] Laura Jayes on air”. Educated, thoughtful conservatives who don’t resort to threats, fear tactics and blatant misinformation must collectively groan at the way Cottrell and Jones represent their ideology. The fact is, we can have nuanced conversations that include a range of perspectives without descending to neo-Nazi or conspiracy theorist depths. 

That isn’t ‘the other side’. That isn’t a fair, balanced discourse. And it’s misleading at best and dangerous at worst to imply it is. 

This is not about excluding voices – conservative or progressive – that make our democracy an interesting think tank of dichotomies. This is about being proactive when harmful views like Jones’ and Cottrell’s censor others. Public debate should be safe, open and receptive, and those who damage that with dangerous misinformation should absolutely have their platform revoked.

Whether or not Jones’ and Cottrell’s revocations this week are really considered ‘censorship’ is semantics. But if we use their words, yes – locking apparent neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists out of public discourse is a fairly good place to draw the line. 

Emma Elsworthy is a Fairfax journalist.