Your right to free speech does not oblige respect or endorsement

A curious thing has happened in recent days in the world of internet political discourse. It's by no means a new thing. It happens all the time, but sometimes it happens to you. Or rather, you notice there's a concerted effort to have it happen to you, but the effort is so bizarre that it stands out as not the natural ebb and flow of internet shitposting, but something. Something weird is happening. Fortunately I'm not quite online enough to understand why this something is happening or where this something is coming from, but there is, undoubtably a something going on.

Stupidpol

The subreddit which this blog is named after has a complicated history in terms of how it has been represented to those who do not regularly post there as well as those that do. I suspect any description of it by any one individual would likely cause consternation among every other person that uses it, but I will try to describe it as I see it regardless. There will likely be parts of this description that are wrong, debatable or an unpopular interpretation. Don't tell me, I already know.

Before I discovered /r/stupidpol, it was founded by listeners of the podcast Chapo Trap House. The initial CTH fan subreddit had devolved into an insular enclave of chasers, gate keepers, egomaniacal mods, purely aesthetic leftism and an atmosphere of political correctness (ironic as it was eventually deleted for constant jokes about killing people) which stifled any attempt at conversations about class, economics, political education or organising.

Thus stupidpol was created, not only as a place with less gatekeeping and censorship, but with an intent to encourage critique of the culture wars and identity politics which made the CTH subreddit all but useless. A place to undermine arguments that distract us from identifying the actual root economic causes of problems which underlie the many social issues which have become cause célèbre for liberals and the left over the last few years. The stupidpol blend of content would become a mixture of genuinely interesting or informative political literature mixed with shit posting about the excesses of essentialist identity politics.

Shortly after is around the time I found the sub. As the stereotypical poor white working class male raised in a sink town, who entered the world of low paid work with no formal education beyond high school, finding a place where people could openly mock the excesses of the out of touch middle class moralist academic version of leftism which seemed to have taken over the mainstream of political debate was a cathartic reminder that the movement for emancipation of all people still exists.

The proclivity to joke about the predatory male feminists, white women of colour and poor rich kids that were building media careers in lecturing struggling people about their privilege, would obviously create a reaction from the targets of this mockery. Stupidpol was given a misleading reputation of being a hive of alt right reactionaries. When we watch a racist white woman torture her instinct for received pronunciation to force some kind of previously unheard “authentic” accent in order to explain that she in fact can't be racist because she is by some obscure definition not white, we're apparently not laughing because of the sheer absurdity of the spectacle, but because we're all secretly white nationalists that think a woman's place is in the kitchen.

This reputation has had effects that have actually benefited the left, and unfortunately in some ways the right too. The benefits for the left are clear from a simple search for the word “thank” on the forum which returns threads by people who felt they were being driven down the alt-right rabbit hole before being inspired by stupidpol to investigate class politics. The elephant in the room would be that it seems that any academic left trend that stupidpol mocks is picked up a few months later by the Johnson government's (and other “populist” right leaders') PR machine in an attempt to create a divisive culture war framed as being between the normal salt of the earth worker and the liberal metropolitan elite. The other common trend is the semi-regular brigading which appears to come from far right discord channels, seemingly inspired by the mistaken belief in a common enemy. The misunderstanding that we hate the dreaded SJW that wants to destroy our way of life, rather than see their shallow analysis as a distraction which sucks the oxygen away from actionable and popular policy, leads many to think it a viable avenue to draw people into their little right wing cults. Beyond helping launch the careers of a few internet famous post-left grifters these attempts tend not to go far. One recent attempt is worth talking about though because it demonstrates a classic method of far right entryism and narrative control, which it would benefit people to understand and recognise.

Ivermectin

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic medication. It works by sending the nervous systems of parasites into overdrive, making them unable to feed, reproduce or function in any way until they die. While it's not unheard of for a medication to have benefits that were never intended, studies show that Ivermectin has no effect on sufferers of Covid-19. At the beginning of this post I mentioned a something. Ivermectin is not the something but it does have something to do with the something.

When the Ivermectin disinformation hit stupidpol, it did not come in the form of claims about the medication. It came in the form of alarmism about the suppression of free speech. A dump of chatlogs from volunteer mods for Reddit were released. These logs were not at all interesting. The juiciest gossip that attention was drawn to appears to be people questioning whether it's worth having their modship removed for a protest that would likely fail. The planned protest was to temporarily close multiple subreddits to draw attention to widespread Covid-19 misinformation and force Reddit to deal with it.

Reddit, along with the other major social media companies have found themselves in a strange position. They are portrayed, and like to portray themselves as omnibenevolent public services. Presenting themselves as de facto arms of the state, they will regularly pontificate about their responsibility to uphold the first amendment, while in reality they are businesses. They are businesses and their moderation policies are nothing if not inconsistent. Many subreddits that are technically legal have been removed because they were ultimately bad for business (or as rumoured in the case of the aforementioned CTH subreddit, to provide political balance while their opposite the_donald which was bad for business, was deleted).

The real driving force behind the management of social media companies is the management of their image. The better their image, the more popular they are. The more popular they are, the more advertising slots and sponsorships they can sell. This leads them to difficult situations when it comes to things like weighing up which would be the least damaging decision when things like Covid-19 misinformation is in the news. Will they lose most by appearing to be against freedom of speech, or against protecting public health? Considering the overwhelming weight of public opinion seems to be in favour of vaccination and covid restrictions, the cynic in me can't help but question whether the real dilemma at Reddit Inc is whether they would rather lose 1'000 users that are interested in this one weird trick your doctor hates or 10'000 users that will never knowingly click an advert.

But free speech is sacrosanct. I believe this. Spez believes this. You probably believe this, and for now at least, the far right believe this. The way Ivermectin discourse landed at stupidpol is a righteous call to action, or so it seems. Obviously many people defending the right to misinform will admit that the claims made are ridiculous, but it's the principal that matters. If you don't demonstrate your commitment to free speech now, you're allowing society down a path in which the powers that be will eventually come after you too.

If you want to actually talk about the efficacy of Ivermectin, now is not the time. The right to free speech is in crisis and must be protected. Quite how it is in crisis in regards to this, is not really clear when taking a sober look at the battlefield. It seems the worst consequence anybody has faced in recent years for spreading medical misinformation is to have to write for a different publication, or lecture at a different university, or at the absolute worst be struck off from practicing medicine. Their rights to speak freely have never actually been effected.

So if their rights to speak freely are not actually effected, what is it that they really want your support for? A better question may be what is the support they really want. While they appear to want to place the actual subject on the back burner for now, it sits there in the background, ever present. Your task is to prove you believe in their right to speak, which considering there is no real threat, can be achieved by doing literally nothing. What is really asked of you is a demonstration of your commitment to their rights. The fact is though, that no demonstration will truly satisfy them. The only thing that will get them past the free speech argument is for you to go through the humiliating spectacle of soiling your own reputation by presenting them to the wider world as reputable and honest while they gleefully lie to your face.

At this point the game is lost. Honest people have allowed themselves to become conduits for propagandists. The blatantly untrue claims are now treated as being equivalent to actual facts in the mainstream discourse. Those that don't have the time or inclination to research the argument themselves are being told two conflicting stories as if this a real argument between two equally valid interpretations of reality, as opposed to a nonsense versus a reasoned argument.

While much has been said and written about repeating a lie until it becomes the truth, the big lie and well funded propaganda outlets. The real foot in the door that allows falsehoods to be presented as truth is this sort of Mott and bailey tactic. You, a respectable and respectful person, are being given two arguments, one reasonable and one ridiculous. The task is to bamboozle you into heaping the respect you have for the reasonable claim to the ridiculous one. Of course you respect free speech, you will prove it by allowing charlatans to use your platform and your reputation without interruption.

What is to be done to combat this strategy? I'm not entirely sure. It's not just random anonymous forum users that fall for it. Many a journalist who should know better has been drawn down a path of becoming a useful idiot for false causes. The best I can recommend is to keep this in mind the next time somebody presents you with a ridiculous claim.

-dave

#freespeech #reddit #ivermectin #farright