Censorship is a dangerous game.
No one with liberal or left sympathies wants to give hate and bigotry a platform. But dealing in terms so malleable and easily contorted means that attempts to simply banish unpleasant things from our discourse by decree often means letting people with vastly different ideas of what those words mean decide what should and shouldn’t be allowed to say.
A recent case illustrates this conundrum. Google’s decision to demonetize libertarian website Zero Hedge, and put the right-wing Federalist on notice over offensive content in their respective comments sections received a lot of attention last week. The Right was unsurprisingly furious, seeing in the move yet more confirmation of their vastly overblown theory of an anti-conservative bias among social media companies. Yet the move also saw well-reasoned pushback from the Left. After all, the Federalist may publish some appalling dreck, but do we really want unaccountable tech giants threatening media outlets over content they deem unacceptable, particularly when it’s in their comments sections of all things?
The pitfalls of this dilemma only get clearer when one looks at the organization responsible for mustering the pressure that led Google to act in this case: the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). Despite the Americanized spelling, CCDH is a British nonprofit headquartered in London. More to the point, several of the figures involved enjoy links to the right wing of the UK Labour Party, which for years cynically used accusations of antisemitism to undermine the party’s former left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
It’s not that anyone left of center will lose sleep over what the CCDH has done so far. They made a handbook for how to deal with online trolls, got far-right troll Katie Hopkins and conspiracy theorist David Icke (of reptilian shapeshifter fame) kicked off some social media platforms, and sounded the alarm over online misinformation about coronavirus.
But as with any push for censorship, the question isn’t about the widely reviled figures or organizations that — for now — constitute the targets of groups like the CCDH, but where this campaign will stop — and which legitimate but politically controversial views could eventually be caught in the net. And based on the careers of those involved in the group, there’s good reason to be concerned.
Blair to the Bone
It is, unfortunately, impossible to explain why without briefly delving into the antisemitism controversy in the UK Labour Party — a years-long row that, like Russiagate or Benghazi, was so vast and labyrinthine as to be completely inscrutable to the average person, who understandably assumed the tidal wave of media coverage about it must have meant there was something there.
Antisemitism of course existed in Labour, just as it does in every political party as well as in wider society. What put the affair into the territory of a weaponized smear was all the facts that went unmentioned: that antisemitism was no higher on the Left than anywhere else; that a significant number of the instances cited were misleading; that they concerned incidents and figures that predated Corbyn’s leadership and even members who were Jewish themselves; that nearly half of the complaints lodged one year didn’t even concern members of the party; that they received comically disproportionate attention compared to the little to none that greeted the many instances of not just antisemitism but virulent Islamophobia at the Conservative Party’s highest levels; or that there was “no reliable, empirical evidence” to suggest antisemitism was more prevalent in Labour than any other party.
Corbyn’s opponents in politics and the media simply incessantly asserted, first, that Corbyn tolerated antisemitism within his ranks, then that he himself was an out-and-out racist.
This is how the public came to believe a full 34 percent of Labour members faced antisemitism complaints instead of the real figure which was just 0.1 percent, and how Corbyn — a lifelong anti-racist who began his career fighting the National Front and protecting a Jewish Cemetery from being paved over by a Blairite politician, who decades later would call him a “fucking anti-Semite and a racist” — was smeared as the second coming of Hitler. Much of this was cynical.
One pro-Israel lobbyist who had actively spread the smear celebrated that he had “slaughtered” Corbyn. A leaked inquiry into the party’s handling of antisemitism complaints revealed not just that the party’s right-wing faction worked to sabotage the chances of Corbyn’s election victory in 2017, but also sabotaged the party’s efforts to deal with antisemitism complaints, whose progress they then misinformed the leadership about.
Take Imran Ahmed, CCDH’s founder and CEO, who has a lengthy history in Labour’s Blairite wing. For years, Ahmed was a special advisor to Corbyn antagonist Hilary Benn. Like many Blairites, Benn was a reliably pro-Israel MP, urging Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) — a pro-Israel group within the Labour Party with a history of inflammatory statements that at one point may have received more than £1 million from the Israeli embassy — to “take on those who seek to delegitimize the state of Israel.”
Benn was also one of several right-wing Labour MPs to sign on to a letter to the Jewish Labour Movement, another embassy-linked anti-Corbyn group in the party that was expressly re-formed in response to the rise of Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, pushing the narrative of a Labour antisemitism problem.
Ahmed later went to work for Corbyn leadership challenger and another LFI supporter, Angela Eagle, and played a central role in a controversy that involved a brick being thrown through a window in Eagle’s office, allegedly by a Corbyn supporter. It’s not clear how much of the incident, which would be used to smear Corbyn and his supporters during the leadership fight, was even true: the location was a known spot for vandalism and rowdy behavior, the damaged window led not to Eagle’s office but a stairwell shared by numerous businesses, and police later admitted they weren’t sure a brick had even done the damage.
Nevertheless, it was used to suspend the constituency’s lower branch, a suspension the leaked antisemitism inquiry later revealed Ahmed had requested be extended as long as possible to give Eagle time to prepare herself against the local Left, who were “properly organized in her constituency.”
Besides this partisan role in the Labour Right’s factional war against Corbyn, there’s evidence Ahmed views the UK’s rising left as part of the digital hate he’s fighting. In a December 2019 Medium post promoting a bill to require tech companies to regulate the content they host, Ahmed lumped “the British Labour Party and antisemites,” and France’s Gilet Jaunes movement with far-right leaders and movements like Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, India’s Narendra Modi, and Trump and the “alt-right.”
He described both Corbyn and current prime minister Boris Johnson as “two privately-educated white men with a history of bigotry offering purportedly radical political programmes that were predicated not on substantive analysis — economic or philosophical — but rather on memes,” and accused Corbyn’s Labour Party of using “hate actors,” specifically its “antisemitic troll armies.”
There’s evidence the nonprofit’s partisan roots go even deeper than this. Its original director and “person with significant control” — defined as someone with more than a quarter of a company’s shares or voting rights, and who can appoint or dismiss the majority of its board — was Morgan McSweeney, the campaign manager for the leadership bid of Corbyn opponent Liz Kendall, who backed the Tory government’s welfare cuts, opposed raising taxes on the rich, and was financed by a coterie of former Blairites-turned-lobbyists.
For three years to this past April, McSweeney was also a director of Labour Together, a group formed as a conservative counterweight to the rise of Corbyn. As the Canary pointed out, both the CCDH and Labour Together share the same address. McSweeney has now been appointed chief of staff by Labour’s new centrist leader, Keir Starmer, just as the party has begun purging pro-Palestinian members.
Countdown to Censorship
Things are little different when it comes to other names on the list. Listed as the CCDH’s “patron” is Rachel Riley, a game show host who established herself as one of the most vociferous liberal critics of Corbyn and the movement behind him.
In Riley’s mind, there is little distinguishing white supremacism from movements calling for the redistribution of wealth and the end of apartheid: the “far-right/far-left” or “alt-right/hard left” are interchangeable purveyors of hate. Riley believes objections to right-wing attempts to enshrine Israel, a country that is 21 percent Arab, as a “Jewish state” are antisemitic, and has defended her conflations by noting that “most antisemites criticize Israel.” (At the same time, white supremacists openly admire the country’s efforts to establish the kind of ethno-state they dream about.)
To this end, Riley convinced an advertiser to pull ads from the left-wing Canary, and placed both Corbyn and, remarkably, Noam “Chomski” [sic] in her personal pantheon of antisemites. It’s also gotten her in trouble, as when she approvingly retweeted an actual antisemite and bigot who happened to be critical of Corbyn, and wore a T-shirt that edited a well-known photo of the former Labour leader protesting South African apartheid with words accusing him of racism. She cried tears of joy when Corbyn lost the 2019 election to Boris Johnson, a man with not just a well-documented record of actual antisemitism, but pretty much every other type of bigotry under the sun.
The rest of the CCDH’s directors don’t scrape these lows, but they do point to the issues inherent in giving individuals the authority to censor content based on their subjective definition of what constitutes racism. Kirsty McNeill, for instance, has suggested that criticism of the Labour Right’s weaponization of antisemitism has “normalized” conspiracy theories, and claimed that “arguments surrounding the expert definition of antisemitism” have imported the Trumpian concept of “alternative facts” to the UK.
As her hyperlink makes clear, McNeill is referring to Corbyn and the Labour left’s resistance — ultimately and unwisely abandoned — to adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism in full, one that has been widely criticized for encompassing certain criticisms of Israel. The party’s Blairite wing was similarly critical of this resistance, such as former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, who charged that antisemitism was a “problem of the conspiracy-theory left.” McNeill was, incidentally, a former advisor and speechwriter to Brown.
Such views are far from unique to the CCDH’s directors. Just look at the UK government’s Commission on Countering Extremism, which put out a report on “Challenging Hateful Extremism” last year. Among the claims it makes is that the concept of anti-imperialism is “rooted in early twentieth century antisemitic theory that criticized the influence of ‘international” (meaning Jewish) financiers that can manifest today as opposition to the United States and its allies, especially Israel and the UK.” Even criticizing United States and British foreign policy is, apparently, antisemitism.
“We are concerned by Far Left hateful extremism in our country,” the report states, ominously and repeatedly calling for “more research” and “greater efforts … to counter activists who engage in Far Left hateful extremism.”
Six months later, Ahmed, CCDH’s chief executive, was placed on the commission’s pilot task force steering committee, to determine a response to instances of hateful extremism.
Be Careful What You Cheer For
This is far from a British-specific problem. As Glenn Greenwald has amply documented, seemingly well-meaning laws and measures that purport to go after hate and bigotry are routinely turned against activists fighting for Palestinian rights around the world. In the United States, the ostensibly “liberal” party opposes even a movement of peaceful protest against Israeli apartheid, which its presidential candidate, Joe Biden, blithely labels antisemitic.
He’s not the only one to take that leap. Marc Lamont Hill was fired by CNN in 2018 because his words in defense of Palestinians were construed as antisemitic, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center declared a UN resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlement construction the number one most antisemitic incident of 2016 — higher, even, than a group of neo-Nazis gathering in Washington DC to celebrate Trump’s victory. The elasticity of words is easily abused by those with a political agenda.
While there are clearly partisan incentives at play when it comes to the CCDH, you don’t have to view the exercise as a purely cynical affair to be concerned that it and efforts like it could end up targeting legitimate political speech. Malicious intent isn’t always a necessary ingredient for bad outcomes; plenty of people can, and have, done tremendous damage because they were ideologically blinkered, ill-informed, or simply not very bright.
You might cheer the ability of such groups to muster outrage and force corporations to censor views they don’t like as long as you agree with them. But whether they’re cynical, misguided, or a dollop of both, you won’t always agree with them. And by the time you realize that, it may well be too late.