Silencing, Censorship, and Criticism, or: Fight Fire with Water
The recent drama regarding the Facebook page We Love GMOs and Vaccines has stirred up a debate among the skeptical community. Some (and I’m glad that this appears to be a rather vocal minority rather than the majority) advocate attacking anti-science pages in retaliation. Others, most notably Kevin Folta, advocate rising above such petty and intellectually dishonest attacks.
To sum up the two arguments, the first group wants users to report Facebook pages that support anti-science beliefs, particularly anti-vaccine and anti-GMOs. This is in response to a common tactic used by a few members of the anti-science crowd to silence their critics. The idea behind this is simple: if they are going to fight dirty then we must do the same to get our own message across.
I completely disagree with this, and in fact feel that it would be betraying our values to resort to such petty attacks. If the Facebook page violates the Terms of Service agreement of Facebook, by all means report that legitimate violation. If they attempt to dox someone, post something illegal or another legitimate bannable offense, then reporting the page is entirely legitimate. But you should also do the same thing to any pro science pages that violate the Terms of Service agreement to Facebook. If a pro science page attempts to dox an anti-vaxxer, it’s just as wrong for them to do it as anyone else.
The real problem with this behavior is that it doesn’t actually add to the conversation; rather it diminishes from it.
Before going further I want to define a few terms here. The first is censorship. Now a lot of us in the skeptical and pro-science community have made this mistake, and I’ve even made this mistake a few times by referring to censorship as a shorthand for what is happening to We Love GMOs and Vaccines. But censorship is when a government agency silences an individual, or stops them from spreading their message. That’s really the only instance where freedom of speech is a valid argument: government intervention.
Facebook is not a government organization Facebook doesn’t really value freedom of speech as highly as it does other things, like privacy and personal safety. If you want to website that values free speech more highly than just about anything else, go to Reddit. You can find some great subreddits out there, like r/skeptic, and you can find some truly distasteful ones.
Silencing on the other hand is exactly what happened to We Love GMOs. The page wasn’t censored by Facebook, it was deleted. It wasn’t even deleted because of the actions of an individual who works for Facebook, but rather it appears to have been the result of anti-vaxxers abusing the automatic report and ban feature of Facebook. Facebook isn’t really even to blame for this, although they definitely need to make a change to their reporting algorithms. But the fact of the matter is that We Love GMOs and Vaccines was silenced by a very vocal minority of anti-vaxxers who have no inhibitions against silencing an opponent.
Criticism, on the other hand, is not silencing. It’s also not censorship. If you say something that I find to be stupid and I tell you so, that’s not censorship and that’s not me attempting to silence you. That’s me criticizing your statement, or possibly criticizing you. One of the things that the anti-vax crowd tends to do a lot is to claim either censorship or silencing when they are criticized. I can easily find YouTube comments, or reddit discussion, or a Facebook thread where this occurs. An anti-vaxxer says something that is just completely wrong. They are then inundated with comments, some of which are pointing out the flaws in their arguments, some of which are resorting to name-calling. The anti-vaxxer then responds with “you people are trying to silence me”, therefore somehow cleaning the high ground.
But being criticized and being silenced are not the same thing. We should welcome criticism, and respond to it by justifying our beliefs with evidence and logic, not with name calling which does nothing to further the conversation. I would like to believe that it is just the anti-science crowd that resorts to this behavior, but that would be a delusion. I can’t even say that the pro science commenters do it less often than the anti-science crowd. It seems that both communities are equally susceptible to individuals who feel there is nothing wrong with trying to silence an opponent.
The problem is that silencing an opponent, either by getting their Facebook post or page removed, or attempting to take down their website, or simply hurling a baseless accusation in the hopes of changing the subject of the narrative, is against the verry principles that we supposedly hold dear.
If we are truly skeptics, and if we are truly people who support science, then we should welcome dissenting views. Not that we should refrain from criticism, and not that we should even give some of these views respect, but the idea that an individual should be prevented from expressing their views goes against everything that science stands for.
Science, and skepticism, relies on the dissenters. We need other people to challenge our beliefs, and so long as they have provided evidence to support those challenges, then we should take a long, hard look at our beliefs and make sure that they can be justified by the evidence presented. But we can’t do that if our opponent has been prevented from speaking.
The key difference between the anti-science celebrity Food Babe and the pro science celebrity Kevin Folta is this: Food Babe has a documented history of blocking and banning people from her blog and Facebook page who disagree with her. Kevin Folta has a long and documented history of blocking people from his website and Facebook page who harasses him, harass other members, and post other vulgar comments or pictures. Kevin Folta has even written about specifically not retaliating against trolls who made report pages. He should know, he’s been the subject of worse abuse than having his Facebook page deleted.
Now that’s not to say that there aren’t pro science pages that delete any dissenting comments. There are. And that’s the whole point of this blog post. There shouldn’t be.
Yes, there’s nothing illegal about it. Anybody who says that having your comment deleted from Facebook is violation of your free speech doesn’t understand how free speech works. Facebook as a private organization, and the owner of the page has the right to delete any content they want to. But that doesn’t mean they should do so.
When you silence somebody from expressing an opinion that is contrary to yours, you are giving the impression that your argument is not strong enough to withstand criticism. And as I’ve said before, criticism is one of the most important parts of skepticism.
So to all those bloggers and commenters that are advocating that we fight fire with fire, then we attempt to shut down an anti-vaxxers in retaliation for shutting down We Love GMOs and Vaccines: don’t. We are better than that. If we are to win this fight, let us win the right way; with good arguments and solid evidence. Not by silencing those who disagree with us.
To sum it all up: Don’t fight fire with fire. Fight the fire of silencing your opponents with the water of rational, logical and evidence based arguments.