The ability to erase a person or group of people because of their past or current actions – or opinions – appears to have enjoyed an exponential boost, evidenced by the ability of Marxist-inspired campaign groups and many other seemingly less political organisations to close down open debate. People as mainstream and popular as JK Rowling or Neil Oliver have found themselves hounded, abused and in some cases threatened if they participate in public meetings, voice their views on social media and seek to help people through their work in a charity (from which they must be forced to resign).
I entered politics as a student in the mid-70s when there were genuine fascist and Nazi sympathisers trying to march in the streets, looking for both converts and trouble. Groups like the Anti-Nazi League sought to have the National Front and others “no-platformed” – fearing their views would gain a foothold and become popular – but the smart way to deal with them was to challenge them to debate and beat them with facts, truth and appeals to community solidarity. Banning such people would only have made them victims that would in turn generate sympathy towards them and their cause.
History shows that by trusting in open debate they were repudiated overwhelmingly in election after election at both national and local level. Later, when the British National Party attracted some support in the nineties it too disappeared from trace after its leader was allowed to participate on BBC’s Question Time and was eviscerated by the white heat of reasoned argument coming from other panellists – and the audience.
The way to find the best solutions to problems is to not just allow but encourage a competition of ideas. I have, for nearly a dozen years, edited the not-for-profit website ThinkScotand.org that has encouraged debate and discussion of views supporting an open liberal society with contributions by people from practically all political parties – or none.
Now I have had my own taste of the ability of faceless opponents to close down debate and I admit it has taken this old dog by surprise.
To ensure the articles that I publish on ThinkScotland reach out to new readers I started last year to promote them using Facebook adverts. These do not appear anonymously but carry my own name as sponsor and have approval from Facebook for meeting their “community standards”.
This process was going well and readership was climbing exponentially when all of a sudden it came to a juddering halt at the end of January when five articles I tried to advertise were rejected for breaching Facebook’s “vaccine discouragement’ rule.
Such a policy is designed to ensure people are not alarmed by “anti-vax” campaigners into refusing to take Covid vaccines during our public health crisis. The merits of this policy are not the issue at hand, the problem is not one of the five articles I proposed advertising mentioned the word “vaccine’ – never mind be critical of them.
Some were not even politically contentious, one article from the Mummy’s Diary series discussed the joys of toilet training a toddler, while another reminisced about being a Scottish tank commander in the Kuwait War 30-odd years ago! To test the policy ThinkScotland then tried to advertise my Scotsman column of a fortnight ago – which did not criticise the efficacy of vaccines but did criticise the SNP's slow delivery of them – it was, obviously, in favour of vaccination! This advert was banned too, and my subsequent appeal against the ban was also refused by Facebook.
As if these current Facebook bans were not inexplicable and indefensible enough, when I looked back at my previous advertising I found eleven retrospective bans of past adverts had appeared, even though these adverts had been approved, paid for and had run their course. Again, although some articles might be controversial politically, eight had not mentioned vaccines at all, and the three that did cannot be construed as critical of vaccines in general or the Covid-vaccines in particular. One was by a Member of the Scottish Parliament.
Making this all the more surreal is that when dealing with Facebook you do not actually deal with people – you deal with boxes that you click or complete and nameless or unaccountable replies appear – offering more boxes to click. Human relationships do not form part of the Facebook service.
Why have these bans sprung up? Facebook provides no specific details but my guess is that those that don’t like what ThinkScotland’s contributors write complain to Facebook about my adverts using the “vaccine discouragement” policy and this automatically triggers an algorithm shutting down of my ability to trade and my authors’ ability to be heard. Their free speech has been cancelled. Bear in mind political advertising through Facebook is allowed, for instance the SNP spent £100,000 in the 2014 referendum – and Facebook encourages such adverts.
I am now working with the Free Speech Union in trying to raise ThinkScotland’s case with Facebook. My own experience of cancel culture demonstrates it threatens our ability to establish the truth or debate and develop the best social or economic policies. Only the enemies of an open and harmonious society can benefit – which makes it imperative Facebook reforms its protocols.
Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively.