Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Bassil
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil (C) arrives at Baghdad airport on August 18, 2014. Bassil has recently been criticised for tweets in which he spoke against Syrian refugees, however he was not 'deplatformed' for his views, while others have been [Ali Abbas-Pool/Getty Images]

Journalism needs clear standards when it comes to ‘deplatforming’ 

Currently, deplatforming of people with views considered hateful is applied in a haphazard way. This just adds to the problem of hate speech

 

 

When a sexual harassment scandal hit the headlines in Jordan featuring a male teacher at the Jordan University of Science & Technology (JUST), many of the media organisations reporting the case chose to give a platform to the teacher rather than the women who had accused him.

This case raises important questions about when we, as journalists, should choose not to platform people with controversial views that might violate human rights or ethics. 

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of opinion and expression for everyone, and this right includes the freedom of the individual to “hold opinions, seek and receive news and ideas, and to spread them to others”. With the rise of free (in all meanings of free) social media platforms, therefore, people have become able to express their thoughts freely and widely. 

But when it comes to newsy opinions and statements, journalists find themselves with a difficult choice: They either need to include opinions deemed hateful or harmful, or exclude them for ethical reasons. The choice to exclude people with specific statements and opinions that violate human rights or ethics is widely referred to as “deplatforming”. 

What is deplatforming?

The Oxford Dictionary is one of the few to include “deplatform” as a word, meaning to “prevent (a person holding views regarded as unacceptable or offensive) from contributing to a forum or debate, especially by blocking them on a particular website”. 

This term is mostly used in a journalistic context, however it occurs in an academic one too and has done for some time. For example, it occurred  at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1973 when the British National Union of Students objected to a lecture by the British-German psychologist Hans Eysenck. The lecture wasn’t cancelled but the protest against it inspired another incident in the same month; a lecture by the American academic Samuel P Huntington, who had previously advised the US government on Vietnam, was cancelled when the students occupied the lecture theatre. 

Many media outlets and social media companies now use deplatforming for the same reason - usually with good intentions. But this policy can be misused by media outlets and journalists to deliberately deny some people or organisations the right of speech.

When is it right to deplatform someone? 

The ongoing - and valid - discussion regarding the thin line between deplatforming as an ethical policy or a violation of freedom of expression, is no different to the discussion around whether it is even possible to have a completely impartial journalism. 

While many believe that the media cannot be completely neutral, due to the different political backgrounds that media institutions may exist within, others believe that ethical and professional standards are capable of creating a neutral and balanced media. 

Despite the different points of view in this regard, there remain clear lines for journalistic ethics that guarantee the public the right to know without being manipulated or misled. Some of these lines make it totally unethical for a journalist or a media outlet to host someone or a group with statements that violate human rights or ethical standards. For example, if we know that someone has previously expressed racist ideas towards someone or some ethnic groups, a journalist might have to consider deplatforming him/her as his/her ideas could harm the vulnerable audience or cause them to be harmed. 

Furthermore, granting a platform to people who spread hate speech is one way to enable these ideas to spread to a wider range of people, when they should not. 

Who gets to decide what is ‘hate speech’?

But this raises the thorny question of who gets to determine what is hate speech in the first place.

For example, the British feminist journalist and activist Julie Bindel was barred from entering a library last week to speak about male violence against women and girls because of her belief in the retention of female-only spaces (such as prisons and domestic violence shelters) which exclude transwomen, for example. Some believe that is “hate speech” but in fact her “gender critical” belief that human beings cannot change sex are protected by law in England and Wales.

Furthermore, shouldn’t everyone have the right to express his or her thoughts freely as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Yes, everyone can express thoughts “without annoying” others. But receiving a platform on which to air your views is not a right for every person or institution, it’s a privilege. Also, not giving media space to a particular person or institution does not necessarily mean silencing them. 

In a world where cyberspace has become available to everyone, people can express their thoughts on any social media platform they choose, such as their account on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking. 

Deleting Palestinian Facebook pages

But even these platforms impose their own policies for publishing; they can simply remove any content that violates their ethical and legal policies. In June 2021, for example, Facebook removed the page of the Palestinian Quds Press Agency, and in the following month it also removed the page of the Palestinian Shehab News Agency, which had more than 7 million followers at the time. 

Facebook justified the decision by arguing that the two agencies were violating its standards for using the site by “supporting violence”. In 2018, the Israeli Ministry of Justice announced that Facebook had agreed to shut down pages containing pro-Palestinian content on its site. If Facebook's criteria were clear, we would have heard, for example, about Facebook also deleting extremist Israeli pages inciting violence against Palestinians. Why were pages showing Ukrainians how to make Molotov Cocktail bombs to resist Russian invaders not deleted?

Choosing not to cover news about the activities of holders of opinions deemed hateful by wider society at all might fall under a media blackout. For example, neo-Nazis can be deplatformed in order not to spread more of their racist views, but news about their activities can be addressed in general without the need for holding interviews with them. 

Another example is that while media outlets must report terrorist attacks by ISIS, the terrorist fighters themselves should never be given the chance to talk or justify their terrorism, because this can lead to more radicalisation among audiences. 

Deplatforming doesn't apply only to political coverage. In the Arab world, there are many talk shows that discuss taboos in the Middle East, which is a great thing to have. But for instance, if a talk show is discussing violence against women, should we also give a platform to men who commit these crimes to justify them? That is effectively what happened at the Jordan University of Science & Technology. 

What if hate speech comes from officially elected figures ? 

In January 2021, Twitter banned former US President Donald Trump from posting after he lost the presidential election. Facebook also followed Twitter's step, blocking Trump's Facebook and Instagram accounts temporarily for two weeks because "allowing the president to continue using [our services] during this period is very risky”. 

In June 2019, the former Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gebran Bassil, published 43 tweets in which he spoke against refugees in Lebanon, especially Syrians. His words were criticised as being racist. Although Bassil represented the Lebanese government at the time, giving him media space could have meant stirring up racism and sectarianism in Lebanon. But Bassil was never deplatformed, and he kept posting such content, and showing up on TV screens.

Conversely, in 2021, Facebook removed the page of the Lebanese armed group, Hezbollah, and the page of its Al-Manar TV channel.  But this decision had political background, as the US government had already banned all institutions operating on its lands from dealing with organisations that had been designated by the US State Department as terrorist organisations. 

In 2019, Twitter temporarily banned the account of the Supreme Leader of the Iranian Republic, Ali Khomeini, after he published a tweet in which he wished harm to the British writer Salman Rushdi.

Deplatforming as a media blackout tool 

Every journalist knows that delivering news impartially and professionally requires ethics, in order to prevent one's personal ideas and opinions from affecting coverage. 

The same thing applies to deplatforming; journalists should not choose to deplatfrom an opinion or a statement just because they personally do not agree with it. Accordingly, media outlets need to set their own clear standards for deplatforming, so that these standards are clear, ethical and legal.

Earlier last month, The German state-run Goethe Institute disinvited Palestinian activist Muhammad Al-Kurd from speaking at one of its conferences in Hamburg, Germany because, it said, Al-Kurd “had made several comments about Israel in a way the Goethe-Institut does not find acceptable”.

Earlier in November 2021, Al-Kurd have given a speech to the UN General Assembly, in which he stated that the Israeli state had been established over Palestinian land after ethnically cleansing its Palestinian original inhabitants. Is this hate speech? And who gets to determine that?

Deplatforming is a hugely grey area. We need to set clear standards for mass media and social networks with audience-generated content. 

Abeer Ayyoub is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance

 

 

More Articles

When leaders can't take a joke, we must make fun of them all the more

The BBC’s decision to censor satire in future political panel shows at the behest of the UK’s new prime minister shows it is hardly different to any state-controlled media organisation operating under authoritarian regimes

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 7 Sep, 2022
A masterclass in propaganda - political vloggers in the Philippines

‘Independent’ political vloggers and influencers are being expertly harnessed by the new Marcos Jr administration for its own ends

Ana
Ana P Santos Published on: 22 Aug, 2022
When covering Afghanistan, what matters is the people

One year after the Taliban seized control of the country, the media must focus its attentions on the mounting humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan; the people are the broken heart of this story

Soraya Salam
Soraya Salam Published on: 16 Aug, 2022
Nigeria - a model for a free African media?

Journalism under military governments in Africa is under threat, but journalists can learn from Nigerian media’s experience of standing up to people in power

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 18 Jul, 2022
‘Fake news’ laws are killing journalists

Countries which have introduced ‘digital security’ laws in the name of combating fake news are also seeing a rise in harassment and even murders of journalists

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 27 Jun, 2022
Journalists are murdered when governments fail to ensure a free press

Over the past four years, everyone I've known who has tried to investigate the operations of mercenaries in Africa has either been killed or injured in attacks

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 12 Jun, 2022
On the ‘treachery’ of translators

The nature of a journalist-translator’s job forces one to become a messenger mediating between nations and cultures. Our writer reflects on the responsibilities this brings

headshot
Bahauddeen Alsyouf Published on: 5 Jun, 2022
If it’s clear who is funding them, community radio stations can transform lives 

Community radio has begun to flourish in Zimbabwe in recent years. But for stations to truly support the communities they serve, it is imperative that they are transparent about who owns them

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 29 May, 2022
International media has abandoned Afghanistan

The international community will be vital in helping Afghanistan to survive Taliban rule - but it has to start with a change of approach by Western media

Sayed Jalal
Sayed Jalal Shajjan Published on: 22 May, 2022
Let’s help refugees escape from the media’s ‘Ghetto of Compassion’

We must not lump all migrants and asylum seekers together when we report about refugees - ignoring nuance doesn’t solve problems

Alejandro
Alejandro Luque Published on: 15 May, 2022
The occupation of Palestine is not a conflict of equal sides - media needs to start telling the truth

Western media's response to the killing of veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces in Palestine is shameful. Until the media starts reporting the truth about Israeli brutality in Palestine, the killing of journalists doing their jobs will continue

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 11 May, 2022
The US is on its way to criminalising journalism

Billed as a ‘super fact checker’, Joe Biden’s new ‘Disinformation Governance Board’ is the first step on this path

Martin Jay
Martin Jay Published on: 9 May, 2022
Beware of activist journalists - they won’t always tell the ugly truth

It is the job of journalists to report the full truth - even when that might cast the ‘good’ guys in a ‘bad’ light

Ilya
Ilya U Topper Published on: 25 Apr, 2022
Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act is criminalising journalism

Bangladesh has been quietly strengthening its laws curtailing freedom of expression - with dangerous results

Rokeya
Rokeya Lita Published on: 18 Apr, 2022
Moscow’s journalistic lights are dimmed, but their story needs to be told

Russia is waging a war on independent journalists who dare to question or contradict the official government line - we must do more to support them

Aidan
Aidan White Published on: 7 Apr, 2022
Why healthy democracies need news junkies

Studies show that news junkies are more likely to register to vote and be politically engaged, but they are not better at predicting future events

Justin
Justin D Martin, Krishna Sharma Published on: 3 Apr, 2022
We need more raw coverage of conflict zones to make people care about all refugees

Coverage of Ukrainian refugees has been more sympathetic because it is usually accompanied by images of the crisis they are fleeing

Tomasz
Tomasz Lesniara Published on: 27 Mar, 2022
Facebook is showing its double standards over freedom of speech

Hate speech is a bad idea. A good idea would be for platforms to show consistency in their content moderation, particularly when it comes to Palestine

A picture of the author, Abeer alNajjar
Abeer Al-Najjar Published on: 17 Mar, 2022
When women are being smeared - listen to what they are saying

Cassandra was cursed to always see the future, but to never be believed. For female journalists like Carole Cadwalladr, long dismissed as a 'mad cat lady', it’s a familiar tale

Nina Montagu-Smith
Nina Montagu-Smith Published on: 16 Mar, 2022
Zimbabwe’s Fourth Estate is under siege

With few job opportunities, harassment by the authorities and a global pandemic, the picture for balanced and truthful journalism is not a pretty one

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 13 Mar, 2022
The irony of fake news - sometimes it serves to highlight injustice

Last week, the image of a blonde-haired Palestinian girl standing up to an Israeli soldier was wrongly credited as an image of a Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier. The intention was to garner sympathy for Ukraine - instead, it had a rather different outcome

Muhammad Khamaiseh Published on: 6 Mar, 2022
‘You must know how to haggle!’ - racism in journalism starts in the classroom 

Even though I didn’t choose to, I quickly became that one ‘annoying’ journalist of colour who had to keep mentioning racism in my journalism school. It was humiliating and exhausting, to the point of nearly quitting

Azraa
Azraa Muthy Published on: 24 Feb, 2022
Human rights lessons from a ‘terrorist’ journalist

It has ever been the case that when a journalist reports crimes by a despot, militant group or even, these days, a so-called democratic state, he is liable to be labelled a criminal.

Clive Stafford Smith
Clive Stafford Smith Published on: 30 Jan, 2022
How should we talk about Pakistan?

How do journalists report accurately about a country which suffers sectarian violence without reinforcing Islamophobic tropes?

Haroon Khalid
Haroon Khalid Published on: 24 Jan, 2022