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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.It’s been a long time since I heard anyonesay, with a ‘lighten-up’ beseech, that “it’s just the internet!”
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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 currentlyembroiled in a legal battle with the parents of aSandy Hook victim after he espousedclaims that the 2012 school massacre didn’t happen.

The parents of the many slaughteredchildren have experienced harassment and death threats as a result, including onefamily who have moved seven timessince the event because onlinefabulistshave continually publishedtheir address and stalkedthem.

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 denialismin this case are hard to walk by.

The conversation around censorship is bubbling in the wake of Jones’ self-described ‘purge’from accessingprivate 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 rememberlearning is that there’s two sides to every story. But does that mean a public platform for career-provocateurs who harm people withmisinformation 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 chaoscoincided witha swift withdrawal of the slot from Sky News online and an almost-apology from news director Greg Byrnes.

The increasingFox-ification of Sky News in theirafter-darkprogramming aside, Cottrell, a self-employed builder from Melbourne, made himself infamous through his pro-anglosphereviews that align with neo-Nazi ideology.

Cottrell, who declared ‘Yes, I am a racist’ on ABC2’s Hack Live in 2016,was convictedof 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 peoplelauding mainstream media like Fairfax as‘fake news’. But the term‘news’ hasbeen hijacked by commentators like Jones and Cottrell, who use the framework of theFourth Estate as a platform for, well, whatever they’d like.

It’s worth notingthat 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.

Last week, Australian commentator and media professionalOsman 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 washarassed with wave after waveof threatening, racially-motivated calls andmessages.

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-wingerAvi Yemini, who also appears regularly onSky 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 misinformationmust collectively groan at the way Cottrell and Jones representtheir ideology. The fact is, we can have nuanced conversations that include arange of perspectives without descending to neo-Nazi or conspiracy theoristdepths.

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

This isnot about excludingvoices – conservative or progressive –that make ourdemocracy an interesting think tank of dichotomies. Thisisabout being proactive whenharmful viewslike Jones’ and Cottrell’s censorothers. Public debateshould be safe, open and receptive, and those who damagethat with dangerousmisinformation should absolutely have their platform revoked.

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

Emma Elsworthy is a Fairfax journalist.

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