Important distinction between displeasure with one’s content and demanding that powers be granted to compel that something’s removal

by Kirsten Han

In both an email to me as well as a press release (that has since been carried by local media outlets), the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods stated that my asking if the disputed Summary of Evidence would be retracted pending their review was “in stark contrast to your views previously expressed to the Select Committee on the takedown of deliberate online falsehoods. Nothing should be taken down save as a last resort, you had suggested, not even matters that might contribute to racial or religious strife.

It’s alarming that there appears to have been a conflation of state power with individual action or self-regulation, when the distinction is an important one to make in any discussion.

The key here is power, and the difference between asking that something be done, and *compelling* something to be done. A request from a complainant for a disputed document or account to be retracted is not the same as a government or organisation arbitrarily exercising the power to remove content or force someone to do so on pain of legal prosecution. I am opposed to the latter as I believe it has significant implications on freedom of expression and open dialogue within a society, but the former is part of the cut and thrust of usual discourse and the negotiating of conflict and disagreement.

This conflation reminds me of a recent episode in which the anonymous Facebook Fact Check Singapore complained that its free speech was being suppressed by “those that champion free speech” (who it labelled as “hypocrites”) because of backlash after its postings and comments on the Select Committee hearings.

Fact Check Singapore’s grievance was built upon a mistaken understanding of what free speech is: it does not mean that one has the license to say whatever one wants without being rebutted, rebuffed or criticised (even vigorously). It means that one should not be subjected to criminal or heavy-handed penalties that deprive one of the right to express oneself.

In this case, Fact Check Singapore was subjected to flak and criticism, but they were not arrested, investigated or prosecuted, nor was their page shut down. (And even if there had been calls for the page to be shut down, they were unlikely to have come from people who actually had the power to do so — power dynamics matter here too.) Their freedom of expression had not been taken away from them; they just had to deal with a backlash they did not like.

Not liking something is NOT EQUIVALENT to demanding that powers be granted to compel that something’s removal. I might take issue with, say, a blog post or news article. I might, in my critique of said post/article, demand that the author/editor retract the piece, on the grounds of it being inaccurate or harmful or unsubstantiated. It doesn’t mean that I then endorse giving anyone the legal power to *compel* the removal of said article. This isn’t anything particularly new or radical: news publications around the world do, from time to time, make editorial decisions to retract stories that have been proven problematic or that have fallen short of their standards. It doesn’t then follow that these news publications then think that the government should have the power to demand that they remove stories that the authorities deem “false” or “wrong”.

This is something that I feel must be made clear and emphasised, because it‘s an important distinction, not just in the context of what to do about deliberate online falsehoods, but in the context of discussions about state power and individual rights and action in general.

This was first published by Ms Han on her Facebook page and reproduced with permission.