ON September 15 the Free Speech Union, the Daily Sceptic and the founder of both, journalist Toby Young,had their PayPal accounts closed without warning, accusing them of promoting ‘hate, violence or racial intolerance’ and spreading ‘Covid-19 misinformation’. Requests for further explanation were unsuccessful.
This time, PayPal’s actions backfired. Young, also associate editor of the Spectator, immediately wrote about the issue and a group of MPs called on Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg to act. On Tuesday this week Rees-Mogg condemned PayPal’s actions and demanded that it immediately stop censoring its customers, and PayPal reopened all three accounts. Meanwhile the government’s Online Safety Bill, currently making its way through the Commons, threatens to create the concept of ‘legal but harmful’ – that is, speech that can be censored. Several Conservative MPs are reported to be considering attempting to amend forthcoming legislation to add a ban on payments companies freezing accounts for political reasons. We have yet to see if this will be the case. Certainly it was fortunate for the freedom of expression that PayPal chose the wrong opponent at this time, a well-known journalist with strong political connections, throwing light on a situation that Conservative legislation threatens to worsen.
As a regular contributor to the Daily Sceptic, and more recently to TCW, I may not be impartial, but to a large extent it is these platforms which have tasked themselves with the difficult job of correcting misinformation and countering concealment of facts, mostly originating with health authorities and mainstream media, not to mention the so-called ‘fact-checking’ services, and offering a counter-narrative to the official one repeated uncritically by a supportive mainstream media. Only a few days ago I spent an afternoon taking apart a ‘fact-check’ piece claiming reports of Denmark‘s recent ban on Covid vaccination for the general population under 50 was ‘fake news’. The censor’s stamp had been slapped on my article on the issue, tweets about it and all other sources quoting the official Danish statement. All now had the ‘false information’ stamp in social media.
Of course many people think that as long as their own opinions are allowed, everything is fine. ‘Okay to ban right-wing bullsh*t’, a thoughtless leftist might think. ‘Okay to ban communist propaganda’, a thoughtless right-winger might think. This position is based on an utter lack of understanding of the threat we face: the question is not if but when your own opinions will be censored, your own livelihood taken away.
Early this year the Canadian government froze the bank accounts of everyone supporting truckers protesting against attempts at forcing them to get vaccinated against Covid-19 or lose their jobs. After the freeze on Toby Young’s accounts, news has emerged of similar actions by PayPal and other payment services against left-wing news sites such as Consortium News and Mint Press, a smaller children’s welfare group, UsForThem, and even advocates for gay and lesbian rights.
The capacity to do this rests on digitalisation. Sri Lanka, a country in dire straits after harvests plummeted due to a decision endorsed by the World Economic Forum to ban fertiliser, has set up a fuel-rationing system whereby drivers have to use QR codes to obtain fuel. QR codes are part of the fast-increasing digitalisation we now experience. The most recent example are the vaccination passports, branded a conspiracy theory only two years ago.
While digitalisation can certainly increase convenience, it is not without problems. In developing countries the poorest often have no digital access and are thus in danger of being excluded from services and benefits.
But the true elephant in the room is misuse of the technology. In China wrong opinions may stop you from travelling, from access to finance or from getting a job. ‘This may happen in totalitarian China, but it won’t happen here,’ people may say. The actions of Justin Trudeau’s government, PayPal and Venmo (a US service owned by PayPal) show the opposite. It is happening here now.
Psychologist Mattias Desmet has said we are now experiencing the rise of technocratic totalitarianism, ‘a kind of totalitarianism that is not led by “a gang leader” such as Stalin or Hitler but by dull bureaucrats and technocrats’. This is the danger we face. We must avoid being fooled by the appearance of democracy, the appearance of liberal society. A technocracy may look like a democracy, but it is one where the elected leaders are powerless. We have seen this all too clearly during the past 30 months. We have seen political leaders obediently ‘follow the science’, basing all decisions on a narrow field of medical science, flawed and imperfect; a truly mad endeavour in the face of a psychotic mass-reaction to a hugely exaggerated threat. This is technocratic totalitarianism. Just like fascism and communism it thrives on loss of sanity, but the difference is that there is no visible leader, only the grey mass of unaccountable bureaucrats.
According to philosopher Hannah Arendt, only the nation-state can protect universal human rights. In the democratic nation-state it is the basic role of the government to protect citizens’ personal freedom and free expression; without free expression there can be no true democracy. Therefore, a government which censors free speech, either directly, or behind the scenes through collusion with private companies, has in effect lost its legitimacy.
British MPs now seem to have had enough and hopefully that will happen more widely, and as soon as possible. But ultimately the responsibility to defend our rights lies with us, the public. Milan Kundera, in a Granta article fittingly published in 1984, defined Western European culture as characterised by ‘the authority of the thinking, doubting individual’. This is the challenge we must rise to. The foundations of free democratic society are at stake.