By Weiling Tay
Let’s get a few things out of the way: Britain First is committed to the dominance of a ‘British ethnicity’ and Christianity in the UK. It explicitly stands against liberalism, but for democracy and complete freedom of expression – and also, for a ban on the word ‘racism’, and on Islam in its entirety. It rejects state interference and rejects unregulated free trade.
While you try to make sense of that, here’s a fun fact: Britain First’s founder was ejected from the BNP for groping, and then left Britain First because he thought it had become too extremist in its mosque invasions (according to two newspapers, but denied by the group itself).
There is little question that Britain First is an unpleasant group, and that its views and actions are far from the mainstream. Yet even some who abhor what they stand for may tut at the news of Britain First’s Facebook page being taken down. ‘Is this the beginning of the end for free speech in the UK?’ they might mutter, ‘is this what we’ve come to: fear and censorship?’
Friends, take heart! The UK’s brave and true commitment to free speech shall not go undefended!
Facebook’s response is that Britain First’s page and its leaders’ profiles were pulled because of posts that repeatedly failed to meet community standards. From comparing Muslim immigrants to animals, to falsely captioned videos of extreme violence, to in-person harassment, their content was not permitted in the guidelines, and so they were banned.
In Facebook lingo, they were zucc-ed. And as most people familiar with Facebook meme pages will know, zucc-ing happens pretty often to the ‘edgier’ pages. Hence the existence of backed-up backup pages.
Was this a fair judgement for Britain First? Is this a threat to our freedom of expression? To ascertain this, we ask two questions.
Firstly, is Britain First racist? The Britain First website has the proclamation that “Britain First rejects racial hatred in all its forms”. They even cover a full page with pictures of non-white people – the political group equivalent of saying ‘I can’t be racist! I have black friends!’
Let us assume that being against Muslim immigrants is not at all tied to race. Also, we will assume that “preservation” of “British ethnicity” is not code for xenophobic racism, and that opposing any changes in culture, particularly those caused by immigration, does not count as racial intolerance. Oh, yes, and their policy of paying Britons “of foreign descent” to leave the UK is meant to prevent foreign espionage and interference. Of course, they are not racist!
Secondly, should it matter? Freedom of speech protects our right to offend, I hear you say. For what use is a right, if it doesn’t protect us when no-one else will?
The right to freedom of speech protects people from fear of state persecution – that is to say, the state continues to protect you from harm, and will not harm you for expressing your opinion without harming others.
Facebook blocking is not state persecution.
Whatever else it makes itself out to be, Facebook is a for-profit firm. Do they have weightier social responsibilities than most firms? Perhaps. But the people who have the ability to enforce these obligations are its customers and shareholders – of whom Britain First fans and defenders comprise a very small part.
Advertisers and major shareholders don’t want to publicly associate their brand with people who call themselves ‘Islamophobic and proud’. Facebook has a clear incentive to stop groups like Britain First commanding a sizeable presence on its platform. The truth is, the social media giant has bigger problems with its public image at the moment. It would not help at all if Britain First found its gateway to international fame through their website.
In reality, private firms like Facebook and Twitter hold major sway over our ability to communicate with people and our public image – abilities that were once unthinkable and now almost non-excludable. The way we can express our opinion has changed irreversibly. Should the state expand the protections of free speech to prevent social media monopolies from discriminating against certain minorities of people?
Surely Britain First would say no – after all, who needs state interference and minority protection?
Photograph: Elizabeth Ellis via Flickr