Tweeting Truth to Power: What’s Behind the Ugly Rise in Social Media Censorship

Josh Dehaas
November 18, 2019
Things happen quickly on social media. And urged on by radical fringe groups, censorship of unpopular ideas is rapidly becoming standard practice across the entire industry. With a parliamentary committee recently recommending dramatic new rules for controlling online speech, the Trudeau Liberals’ re-election brings politically-motivated restrictions on social media discourse that much closer to reality. By focusing on how one individual experienced the arbitrariness of corporate censorship, Josh Dehaas raises an alarm over the impending calamity of the government-imposed variety. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Tweeting Truth to Power: What’s Behind the Ugly Rise in Social Media Censorship

Josh Dehaas
November 18, 2019
Things happen quickly on social media. And urged on by radical fringe groups, censorship of unpopular ideas is rapidly becoming standard practice across the entire industry. With a parliamentary committee recently recommending dramatic new rules for controlling online speech, the Trudeau Liberals’ re-election brings politically-motivated restrictions on social media discourse that much closer to reality. By focusing on how one individual experienced the arbitrariness of corporate censorship, Josh Dehaas raises an alarm over the impending calamity of the government-imposed variety. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
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On May 11, University of Toronto professor Ray Blanchard tried to log onto his Twitter account but found it was locked. His words had been disappeared down the memory hole. The respected psychologist was informed that he had breached Twitter’s “hateful conduct” policy for a thread outlining his position about when sex-reassignment surgery makes sense for transgender people and when governments should accept a person’s preferred gender identity.

For the crime of expressing his professional views on transgender issues, University of Toronto Professor Ray Blanchard’s Twitter account was suddenly suspended.

He quickly emailed a few friends “just to let them know where Ray Blanchard had gone,” he recalls wryly in a recent interview Before long, those friends were tweeting their displeasure; Fox News and Breitbart soon picked up the story about a leading transgenderism expert kicked off Twitter for sharing his professional views.

A day later, the account was unlocked and Blanchard’s tweets mysteriously restored. Twitter sent him an unsigned message saying, “We have restored your account, and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.” Blanchard isn’t sure whether the media attention caused Twitter to reconsider or whether his privileges would have been restored anyway. But the real damage had already been done. The short suspension sent a chilling signal to anyone who wants to talk freely about transgender issues: Accept the views of the radical transgender activists or risk losing your right to speak.

If a Liberal-dominated federal Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights from last parliament gets its way, this type of flash censorship will likely become a lot more common. Earlier this year, the committee recommended that Ottawa require social media companies to “remove all posts that would constitute online hatred in a timely manner” and to “properly report on online hate” or face “significant monetary penalties.” It’s a sweeping recommendation with far-reaching implications for free speech.

The Liberal-dominated federal Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights last year recommended sweeping changes that would require social media companies to “remove all posts that would constitute online hatred” or face “significant monetary penalties”

What got Blanchard in trouble was a Twitter thread that began: “Transsexualism and milder forms of gender dysphoria are types of mental disorder, which may leave the individual with average or even above-average functioning in unrelated areas of life. Sex change surgery is still the best treatment for carefully screened, adult patients, whose gender dysphoria has proven resistant to other forms of treatment.” Blanchard added a critical caveat: “Sex change surgery should not be considered for any patient until that patient has reached the age of 21 years and has lived for at least two years in the desired gender role.”

Blanchard also shared his view on when governments and sports leagues should accept male-to-female trans people’s preferred genders, and vice versa. “There are two main types of gender dysphoria in males, one associated with homosexuality and one associated with autogynephilia (sexual arousal at the thought or image of oneself as a female),” he wrote.  Accordingly, he concluded, “The sex of a postoperative transsexual should be analogous to a legal fiction. This legal fiction would apply to some things (e.g., sex designation on a driver’s license) but not to others (entering a sports competition as one’s adopted sex).”

Blanchard’s views likely strike most people as considered, compassionate and reasoned. Among other things, his position was aimed at addressing the growing problem of physically strong natal males who have had many years of testosterone pumping through their systems disrupting women’s sports. Yet to the transgender activists who police speech on Twitter his thoughts constitute hate, and Twitter agreed. Twitter says it suspends accounts only “when we determine that a person has violated the Twitter Rules in a particularly egregious way, or has repeatedly violated them even after receiving notifications from us.” For Blanchard, however, his banishment seemed to come out of the blue. 

Fair game? Blanchard has been critical of transgender athletes competing in women’s events; here trans cyclist Dr Rachel McKinnon (middle) celebrates a controversial gold medal at the UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championships in Los Angeles, California last year.

Blanchard believes his account was suspended because trans activists don’t like being told that gender dysphoria is a “mental disorder,” even though that is how it’s defined in the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Blanchard may also have sinned in the eyes of the transgender speech police by mentioning autogynephilia, a term he coined in the early 1990s and that appears in the DSM-V.

Blanchard wasn’t the first or the last person censored for crossing trans activists. He points out that Miranda Yardley, a transgender woman who admits that she is biologically male, was also permanently banned, after tweeting that a transgender politician was “a man.” Twitter also went after Feminist Current editor Meghan Murphy and free speech activist Lindsay Shepherd after they both offended Vancouver trans activist Jessica Yaniv (sometimes referred to as Johnathan Yaniv) who became infamous for 16 human rights tribunal complaints alleging discrimination, and seeking financial compensation in redress, from female business owners who declined to perform a Brazilian wax on her male genitalia.

Feminist Meghan Murphy: one of many outspoken voices banned from Twitter for speaking her mind on trans rights.

Murphy was permanently banished from Twitter after referring to Yaniv by her male given name and birth sex, which violated Twitter’s hateful conduct policy. Murphy sued but has not been reinstated. Yaniv’s attempted shakedown was precisely what Murphy was trying to sound the alarm over when Yaniv succeeded in having her account shut down. The story of Yaniv’s vexatious complaints eventually became common knowledge thanks to outlets like Quillette and The Post Millennial, but it might have flown under the radar entirely had Murphy not raised the alarm.

Shepherd was also banned while trying to draw attention to Yaniv’s lunacy. She called Yaniv an “ugly fat man,” in response to Yaniv’s tweet stating that Shepherd had a “reproductive abnormality” (i.e., a uterus) and that Yaniv hoped Donald Trump would build a wall in Shepherd’s vagina.

Yaniv wasn’t banned and instead did a victory lap. After an outcry, Twitter reinstated Shepherd’s account. A bitter irony for Murphy and Shepherd came in late October when the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal dismissed all of Yaniv’s complaints, stating not only that the aestheticians’ actions were not discriminatory but also that Yaniv was deceptive and motivated by financial gain.

Trans activist Jessica Yaniv’s numerous complaints against Vancouver aestheticians were dismissed by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal on the grounds Yaniv was deceptive and motivated by financial gain.

It’s understandable that Twitter would want to try to protect its users from hateful comments, but the company betrays a rather obvious bias in how it decides what constitutes hate. It is quick to suppress speech that offends the radical transgender activists, while it’s unwilling to protect people who are maliciously targeted by spiteful trans activists. This is why a respected researcher like Blanchard can be temporarily kicked off the platform while Yaniv gets free rein.

This kind of selective online censorship isn’t new to social media, but it seems to be accelerating. Thousands of users have been de-platformed (kicked off) or de-monetized (prevented from generating revenue and earning a living). The targets range from famous names like actor James Woods to relatively obscure journalists but they all tend to have one thing in common: views leftists don’t like.

And it’s not just Twitter. Almost every popular app seems eager to prove its commitment to social activism by censoring free speech, even . Earlier this year Facebook announced that instead of just banning “hateful treatment of people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity or religion” it would also ban “white nationalism” and “white separatism.” This gave the company an excuse to delete the account of Faith Goldy, a far-right commentator with some harshly anti-immigrant views. Facebook did not, however, ban the blatantly anti-white and anti-Semitic black nationalist New Black Panther Party.

Dehaas - Inset 6 (above)
Free speech, but only for approved points of view: Far-right commentator Faith Goldy is banned from Facebook while the anti-white, anti-Semitic New Black Panther Party is not.
Free speech, but only for approved points of view: Far-right commentator Faith Goldy is banned from Facebook while the anti-white, anti-Semitic New Black Panther Party is not.

YouTube, meanwhile, bans accounts by the thousands. In the first three months of 2019 alone, it removed 24,661 channels from its service for “promotion of violence or violent extremism.” In June, YouTube committed to removing even more accounts with a new policy outlawing any content “promoting violence or hatred against individuals or groups” based on criteria ranging from ethnicity to “immigration status” – making it no longer permissible to criticize even illegal immigration. The new criteria show an obvious bias toward the positions of urban Democrats at the expense of most Americans, who want illegal immigrants stopped.

Considering the degree to which the giant social media monopolies are already suppressing speech and the biases they’ve revealed in doing so, it’s hard to understand why the Liberals on the Justice Committee are demanding even more censorship. The Commons committee’s report, Taking Action to End Online Hate, admits that “information about online hate in Canada is very limited” but goes on to claim that even more censorship is needed due to “a link between online hate and real-life violence, as revealed yet again by recent horrific hateful attacks on different groups.” The supposed evidence for that statement is testimony from witnesses who blamed the internet for the New Zealand mosque shooting that killed 51 people in March, the Quebec City mosque shooting that killed six people in 2017, and the 2018 attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead.

But it’s far from clear that forcing internet companies to disappear more tweets, Facebook posts and blog entries will finally eliminate hateful ideologies. As China’s censors have discovered, it’s very difficult to stamp out an idea completely through online censorship. People develop a host of mechanisms, including codewords and memes that get through filters, or use virtual private networks that bypass official internet service providers. Even if social media companies dramatically ramp up their censorship activities, at best they can hope to temporarily slow the spread of hateful messages.

Dehaas - Inset 10(below)
Is social media censorship even possible? Despite China’s efforts to control opinions through its Great Firewall and other means, it is nearly impossible to stamp out ideas online; case in point the ongoing democracy rallies in Hong Kong.
Is social media censorship even possible? Despite China’s efforts to control opinions through its Great Firewall and other means, it is nearly impossible to stamp out ideas online; case in point the ongoing democracy rallies in Hong Kong.

And any gains made in suppressing truly hateful ideology would come at the expense of free speech. As Canadian Civil Liberties Association lawyer Cara Faith Zwibel put it in her testimony to the Justice Committee, “Any attempts to regulate online hate will inevitably bump against freedom of expression, because contrary to what some say, the precise contours of hate speech are not easily discerned.” While most of us can agree that Facebook should take down the video of the New Zealand mosque shooting or a tweet advocating genocide or actively inciting violence, Twitter’s banning of Blanchard is a reminder that some people will call any idea they don’t like “hate speech,” and social media companies are happy to listen. If social media companies have to face fines for allowing “hate speech” on their platforms, we can expect them to err even more on the side of radical activists than they already do.

Such a response would mean a big loss for civil society and open debate. Blanchard’s views may seem offensive to some, but they are also scholarly, research-based, result from a lifetime of study and motivated by a sincere desire to help people with gender dysphoria. They deserve to be heard. If you are the parent of a child with gender dysphoria trying to make the best health care decisions, wouldn’t you want to know that, in some cases, the condition may be driven by a paraphilic disorder? Or that surgery helps some people but harms others?

A gate-keeper with issues: Can social media companies be trusted to defend free speech when their own biases and self-interest point to greater censorship and restrictions?

Blanchard notes that people are already being harmed by trans activists’ successful suppression of speech. “If you look at the phenomenon of rapid onset gender dysphoria where we’re having large numbers of teenage girls (falsely) convinced they’re transgender and getting testosterone and breast surgeries, I think it’s clear people are already getting bad medical treatment,” he says. “People are either afraid to not go along with it, or in some rush of political correctness or wokeness, are going along with the radical trans activist agenda.”

At least without government-imposed censorship, social media companies can sometimes be shamed into doing the right thing. That appears to be what happened when Twitter belatedly unlocked Blanchard’s and Shepherd’s accounts. But once this process becomes formalized and regulated, we can expect internet companies to follow whatever the government of the day decides is “hate speech.” Consider how Twitter kowtows to Pakistan, where the government considers insulting Islam to be hate speech. Last year Twitter warned Ensaf Haider, a Montreal-based activist, that she had violated Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for writing, “Retweet if you’re against the niqab.” That kind of threat won’t shut Haider up, but it has likely silenced many Pakistani women.

It’s entirely conceivable that Haider’s tweet could be labelled “Islamophobic” by some future Canadian social media control committee. And if that happened, something important would be lost. Muslim women who want to throw off their oppressive face-coverings might no longer find any support for their position online, regardless of popular opinion. And the public could be prevented from having a fulsome debate about Quebec’s ban on ostentatious religious symbols in public sector workplaces.

By the same standard it’s not impossible to imagine, after the absurd conclusion by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls that Canada is committing an ongoing genocide, that anyone advocating for social agencies to take newborn babies away from drug-addicted Indigenous mothers could be labelled as hateful and lose their right to speak openly on social media. The same might apply to someone arguing against spending taxpayer’s money trying to resurrect dead Indigenous languages. We must not confuse controversy with hate.

New government regulation will inevitably cement the bias big technology companies already have against certain types of people and certain views. While the Justice Committee avoided defining hate speech, it asserted that any definition “should acknowledge persons who are disproportionately targeted.” That suggests the committee’s Liberal majority buys into erroneous claims that white people can’t be victims of racism and that men can’t be victims of sexism. Facebook might choose to interpret this to mean that calling white skin a “defect,” as Black Lives Matter Toronto founder Yusra Khogali did on Facebook, is acceptable, while a post pointing out that violent crimes are committed disproportionately by black people must be removed. Privileging some voices over others is not a recipe for a healthy public conversation. It’s also fundamentally unjust.

None of this is to say that words don’t hurt, or to deny that truly hateful ideas can cause real harm. But we already have options. If we see something we consider hateful online, we can try to change the person’s mind. We can block those accounts which offend us. Or call the police if we see a post that threatens real-life violence. What we don’t need is a government seeking to impose more censorship. There’s more than enough of that already.

Josh Dehaas is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and law student. Find him on Twitter @JoshDehaas.

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