Author Archives: Donnchadh O Conaill

From top: US president Donald Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter last week; Donnchadh Ó Conaill

The removal of Donald Trump and others from social media platforms in response to last week’s events is just the latest salvo in a long-running dispute over free speech and social media moderation.

Very broadly, there are two popular opposing positions on the Night of the Long Digital Knives. The first is that it is censorship, systematically favouring one political outlook (or at any rate, penalising others), and it should worry even those of us who heartily dislike Trump and all his works.

The opposing view is that the social media platforms are private firms and they have every right to decide whether or not to host content. Indeed, to compel them to carry content which they find objectionable would infringe on their free speech rights.

In the time-honoured hairsplitting tradition I want to criticise each of these views. Ultimately I am probably more sympathetic to the first, but to start with let me say what I think is wrong about it.

Censorship can be defined in a variety of ways, many of which are ambiguous or metaphorical (e.g., silencing speech). Part of the problem is that the term ‘censorship’ has considerable rhetorical force, so there will always be the temptation to use it widely (compare with ‘fascism’). But there is also the question of properly categorising what has happened to Trump (and numerous others), in order to figure out how to best respond to it.

One well-established use of the term is that censorship is an infringement on someone’s right to express their opinions on some topic or other. This definition has the advantage of allowing that it is not only the state which can censor (so, for instance, the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists was an act of censorship).

It also clearly captures a way in which censorship is always morally objectionable: it is always objectionable to infringe on someone’s rights (and even if there are circumstances where it would be permissible, it is a necessary evil).

On this definition, Trump’s suspension from various platforms was not censorship. Your right to express your opinion is not a right to use someone else’s platform to do so. As a comparison, consider one’s right to get married. This is not a right to marry any individual one likes. Furthermore, one’s rights are not infringed if one is jilted by one’s soulmate, or indeed by everyone else.

There are two common responses to this kind of argument. The first is that the big social media companies form a monopoly, or more accurately an oligopoly, so there is in effect no alternative to using them. It is true that a small number of platforms have a dominant share of social media traffic. It is also true that some of the dominant social media companies benefit from network effects: the fact that many people already use them makes them attractive to other users, and so serves to entrench their market position.

What is much less clear is whether these companies meet another standard condition for forming an oligopoly: that there is no substitute service available. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all have existing competitors which are just as accessible to the consumer.

It is certainly correct that these competitors are less popular, and for that reason may be less effective as a means of expressing opinion or engaging with others – but one’s right to express opinions does not entail a right to use the most effective means of expressing them.

The other response is that social media is so ubiquitous in contemporary life that it should be treated as a utility, on a par with electricity or water. But this claim is also dubious. Apart from any other considerations, this claim overlooks the point that in many cases one can use a social media platform in different ways: one can have an account, or one can simply browse content without one.

For the utility claim to work in the present context, the claim must be that having an account on a social media platform is as vital for contemporary life as having running water in one’s house. And, to put it mildly, this is not obviously correct. I have no account on Twitter or YouTube. I have a Facebook account, and losing it would be very irritating, but no more than that.

That said, the second line of thought described at the start of this piece is plainly unsatisfying. Social media may not be an essential part of anyone’s life, but it has become extremely important for contemporary political discussion. That a small number of companies have such a large market share and the freedom to place very wide-ranging conditions on content is disturbing, even if you happen to agree with the conditions they choose.

In practice there are specific problems with how consistently these companies apply their rules and the lack of transparency in how they do so. More generally, even if social media companies cannot infringe on a person’s right to express their views, they can limit how effectively a person can express those views.

The correct way to think about the recent deplatformings, I suggest, is that the big social media firms are exercising a form of social domination: they can interfere more or less arbitrarily in the decisions of others (I have written elsewhere about how this idea of domination is relevant to cancel culture – see Letter 6 here).

The worry is that these firms, with limited democratic oversight, have the power to marginalise certain views by making it harder to find discussion of them. You might be happy to see The Donald booted off Twitter, but how happy would you be if, say, people expressing the view that giant corporations should pay more taxes were systematically deplatformed, or a platform’s algorithms made their content much harder to find?

Understood in this way, the problem is similar to that described by Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: a crucial public good (platforms enabling opinions to be expressed and discussed) is largely provided by privately owned for-profit entities. In this situation, tensions between the public good and the interests of the private firms are bound to arise.

Ideally there would be enough competing firms with different standards of moderation to offset the influence of any single platform or group of platforms, but this is arguably not happening (thanks to the network effects).

Finding a workable solution will take a good deal of technical know-how, political co-operation and a judicious balancing of competing priorities. But a good start would be to stop thinking about what happened as either censorship or as nothing to worry about.

Donnchadh Ó Conaill is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is writing here in a personal capacity.


Alick Douglas writes:

If you can get across the AR15 on the table (which isn’t referred to in the video), I thought this was a really thought provoking video on censoring and deplatforming in the context of the erasure of Parler. Karl (host) I believe has a day-job as an IT security consultant, and posts interesting content fairly frequently on that InRange channel. Nice historical content on the wild west too…

From top: Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health Dr Tony Holohan; Donnchadh Ó Conaill

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, there seems to have been almost as much discussion of misinformation around the virus as there has been of the virus itself.

What has not been commented on so much is something slightly different: not misinformation, but information. Specifically, how should we (the non-specialist public) think about expert views and decisions which have been taken based (at least in part) on expert advice?

Given that people who are relatively well-informed about the outbreak disagree on some important issues, how should we (the relatively not-well-informed) evaluate the different claims?

I am not talking here about advice on which there is a strong consensus, i.e., the need for social distancing, to frequently wash your hands, etc. I am interested specifically in views concerning how societies as a whole should react, on which there is less consensus.

Many European countries have closed their schools and restricted businesses, but not all have done so (and some did it much more quickly than others). Some have imposed travel restrictions, but again not all; some but not all have already moved into lockdown. None reacted as quickly as Asian countries like South Korea or Taiwan.

Simplifying a great deal, we can ask: which country’s response is correct?

Part of the problem is that we cannot simply ‘trust the experts’. The worry here is not some generalised distrust of officialdom or the elites.

This is a dangerous phenomenon when it comes to public health, and may yet play an important role if and when a vaccine for Covid-19 is developed. But the problem I have in mind is different. It is that the experts disagree, and different official bodies in different states have made different decisions.

Another easy option is to rely on what some specific experts have advised. Anyone following discussions of the pandemic online will have come across criticism of the Irish authorities for not reacting quickly or decisively enough, based on what other countries have done and on

In thinking about how the Irish government have handled this, it is worth keeping some things in mind. First, there does appear to be some disagreement among even very well-informed people as to what the best response should be.

More specifically, while everyone agrees on the need to flatten the curve, there is disagreement as to how to best do this: which response would be most effective, how quickly each response should be implemented, how long they can be kept in place, etc.

Second, it’s not sufficient to acknowledge one’s lack of expertise but to then reach a firm conclusion based on what some specific expert or experts have said.

Part of our lack of expertise is precisely not knowing how representative the views of any specific expert are, or of how well-founded their views may be. Even experts can make mistakes, or be working with dubious assumptions or faulty data. We should look for further reasons to accept what even someone with a high degree of expertise is telling us.

It is worth considering a specific example, the widely-shared article by Tomas Pueyo.

Note that he is not an expert, in the sense of being an epidemiologist or someone who works in a closely-related field, though he clearly has some relevant expertise in terms of statistics and modelling. Nor does he seem to have access to information which is not generally available.

That said, I think there are reasons to take his views seriously. First, his article has been read millions of times, so if his analysis of the data was fundamentally flawed there is a good chance this would have been pointed out (at any rate, there are large incentives for other people with relevant expertise to point out flaws in a very widely-read article on such an important topic).

Likewise, the data he is drawing on is publically available, which again provides an opportunity to correct any mistakes or selective use of statistics.

Second, many of his specific claims make sense (e.g., his discussion of the way mortality rates seem to be sensitive to the availability of intensive care facilities).

None of us can evaluate new information without relying on what we already assume to be correct, and it seems correct to suggest that if the number of patients who need intensive care outstrips available facilities, more of these patients will die.

Third, Pueyo goes through his reasoning in a fairly detailed fashion. Even a non-expert reader (like myself) can see how the evidence he marshals supports his conclusions.

To a fairly large degree (though not entirely) the persuasive force of his argument does not rest on his status as an expert or because we trust him to have found the right data and analysed it correctly.

In other words, the more you can see how a given conclusion is supported by specific examples or data, the less weight you will need to place on basically trusting that specific experts know what they are doing.

We can never avoid placing any weight on this; it is the basic issue facing all non-experts attempting to understand what an expert on a specific topic is saying. (And versions of this problem arise even for other experts; no-one is going to be able to double-check all the data or verify all of the experimental findings which they accept as true.)

This is the price we pay for relying on experts; at a certain point, we must simply trust their expertise. But Pueyo has minimised the degree to which we must place this kind of trust in him.

To be clear: I’m not saying Pueyo is definitely correct, let alone that it is obvious what governments should do (even setting aside the complicating factor that each government will be faced with a different set of circumstances).

But there are good reasons to accept his argument, and good reasons to worry that Ireland’s response, at least initially, was too slow.

Donnchadh Ó Conaill is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is writing here in a personal capacity.


From top: pro-life protesters pray outside the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, Dublin; Donnchadh Ó Conaill

Ireland’s new abortion regime has been in place for just over a year. From the first days of its implementation there have been protests at hospitals, and attendant calls for legal limits to such protests. Simon Harris is considering introducing exclusion zones around hospitals and other medical facilities which provide abortions.

Exclusion zones raise a number of different challenges, and it is important to distinguish between them.

The most obvious worry is that such zones would infringe the rights of people to peacefully and legitimately protest. Whether this is correct as regards anyone’s legal or constitutional rights is a question which may be tested in court, should exclusion zones be introduced.

Whether the state has the right, morally speaking, to impose such zones is another matter. The principle that people should be able to peacefully protest against activities with which they disagree, even if those activities are legal, is a very plausible one.

This principle can be overridden if the protests involve intimidation or harassment, or physically prevent people from using legally available facilities. But this does not seem to have been a feature of the anti-abortion protests over the past year – at any rate, I am not aware of legal proceedings arising from any such incidents.

That said, it is not clear if exclusion zones would actually contradict the principle. It is surely not the case that anyone should be able to protest in any venue, at any time or in any way whatsoever.

You may be free to organise a march down O’Connell Street, but not whenever you so choose; you may be free to protest the government’s actions, but it does not follow that you can do so using a loudhailer in the Dáil chamber in the middle of a debate.

There is some evidence that these protests are causing distress to people seeking to use hospital services (and not always for anything to do with abortion; some reports have mentioned the distress caused to women who have miscarried).

This is not a reason to ban all protests against the provision of abortion, but it does provide some reason to prevent them from being held at venues where the chances of causing such distress will obviously be higher.

But exclusion zones would raise another problem. Even if they would not in and of themselves infringe the rights of protestors, there is still reason to regard them as dangerous, because of the precedent they set.

When thinking about whether a law limiting someone’s freedom should be introduced, it is useful to ask yourself whether you would be prepared to have this law applied in your own case.

How happy would you be if a government was to use exclusion zones to limit protests against something to which you were opposed (e.g., renditions or troop movements through Shannon, an arms fair, an industrial development despoiling a historical site)?

Even if you agree that the state has the moral authority to do this, you might not agree that it should.

The freedom to protest is particularly important for minorities and groups which do not have much social or political power. Most people will be in the minority on at least some issues, and would potentially stand to lose if the right to protest is limited in this way.

Whether or not you have much sympathy for the anti-abortion protesters is beside the point. Their freedom to protest peacefully is your freedom as well.

For this reason, it is worth exploring alternatives to exclusion zones which can counteract the protests without limiting the freedom of protesters. One option would be to organise counterprotests, but it is difficult to imagine these reducing distress caused by the initial protests.

Another alternative would be to use the protest as a means to undermine its own aims. Every year neo-Nazis march in the town of Wunsiedel in Germany in memory of Rudolf Hess, who was once buried there. In 2014, the march was turned into an anti-racist fundraising event: for every metre the neo-Nazis marched, €10 was donated by local businesses to EXIT-Deutschland, a group that works to rehabilitate right-wing extremists.

The We Counter Hate campaign used similar tactics – it would reply to tweets containing hate speech, informing the author that for every retweet a dollar would be donated to the anti-extremist group Life After Hate. This led to a 65% reduction in retweets.

As Tony McAleer, co-founder of Life After Hate and himself a former neo-Nazi puts it:

“The answer isn’t to suppress behaviour, the answer is to change it”

To be clear, anti-abortion campaigners are not comparable to neo-Nazis. But in principle the same tactic could be employed: people could pledge a certain sum of money for every protest, or even every protester, at a hospital which provides abortion.

The amount per individual could be quite small if enough people signed up, and could be capped at a certain amount each month. The money could be pledged to groups working to advocate for abortion rights or providing information on how to access services.

The aim would be to disincentivise the protests without limiting anyone’s rights. Protesters would have to decide if they were happy to go ahead with an action which would have the effect of potentially raising thousands of Euro for the very causes they oppose.

Of course, this tactic may not work. Many people will regard this as a request for citizens to do the government’s job for them; others might worry that similar tactics could be employed to disincentivise campaigning on behalf of all manner of causes.

And the anti-abortion protesters might decide that their actions are worth pursuing in any case. Since abortion services are now widely available in Ireland, the extra financial support for abortion advocacy groups might not seem much of a drawback.

In any case, there is a more general issue here, concerning how we ought to respond to speech that we find offensive or even hateful.

Some restrictions on freedom of speech are inevitable and perfectly justifiable, but these are mostly related to fairly direct correlations between speech and some specifiable harm (e.g., defamation or incitement to violence).

Other forms of speech which people may find objectionable, such as anti-abortion protests outside hospitals, pose a rather different challenge. It is dangerous to think that such speech can be legislated away.

A more useful approach is to ask what can be done without restricting anyone’s freedom to protest. I’ve outlined one suggestion; perhaps Broadsheet readers can improve on it?

Donnchadh Ó Conaill is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

Last week: Pray Away

Top pic: Rollingnews