Don’t ignore the Facebook furore

“Leave what is stupid to the judgment of public opinion; stupidity will find a thousand censors”, wrote the Russian radical Alexander Radishchev in 1790.

The controversy over the foul “Aboriginal memes” group on Facebook has followed a well-worn path. First, outcry, dragging in ministers and shadow ministers. There have been days of news reports about the Facebook group. Second comes the inevitable calls for censorship – initially directed at Facebook itself, but then calls for the law to intervene.

Tony Abbott this morning said the Coalition may give ACMA increased take-down powers to deal with such things, as part of his review into “cyber-bullying”. In the view of the IPA, the communications regulator should be shut down – not granted more power. And it certainly should not be granted further power to censor speech, no matter how offensive or stupid that speech may be.

But calls for censorship usually ignore the effect of public opinion. As Radishchev pointed out – society has a great deal of power to censor the stupid and offensive. Facebook, who may wipe whatever page they like on their site, can respond to the adverse publicity without harming our right to free speech. (Their house, their rules.) In this case, they appear not to have chosen to do so.

But the person who started the group appears to have deleted all the content – no doubt in response to the mass outcry. Public outrage was successful, as it has been successful many times before. The old principle says that the solution to bad speech is more speech. We ought to notice when that principle works.

UPDATE: Facebook pulled the group down earlier today.

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