Image Courtesy of pixabay.com
Maddie Hunt, Queen’s University
Edited by Brendan Sheppard
Free Speech: a right, a privilege, a freedom. But when free speech meets harmful falsehoods and hate speech, should your freedom be censored? While big-tech companies like Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook begrudgingly say ‘yes’, alternatives like Rumble are answering with a defiant ‘no’.
Rumble is a video-sharing platform, similar to Youtube with the main difference being its tolerant “approach towards harmful and fallacious speech”, gaining the support of American right-wing political investors. The site was built so that any and all information is not only accepted, but amplified without any means of censorship, fact-checking, or other standards, guidelines, and regulations. While censorship does have its flaws, should online platforms be blocking certain statements for the safety of others when it comes to misinformation and hate speech?
Chris Pavlovski, the CEO and founder of Rumble, doesn’t think so. He started the site in 2013 to compete with Youtube. The goal of the site was to provide a censor-free platform for discourse, while giving more money back to content creators. While users are “prohibited from posting illegal activities, like child exploitation or harassment,” there is no regulation for other content such as political discussion, opinion, or other controversial dialogue. This includes conspiracies, misinformation, and hate speech. Rumble’s financial success was slow-moving until 2021, after the riots that took place on Capitol Hill in the US on January 6th. Rumble is now valued at roughly “US$2 billion and is preparing to issue public shares on the NASDAQ exchange, [with] Pavlovski standing to become a multi-millionaire if the deal closes as he hopes”.
The main catalyst for changes in the amount of profit Rumble has been able to generate, came after former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter – his main platform for projecting misinformation and inciting violence. After taking to social media to incite violence during the capitol riots, Twitter shut him down. Thus, Rumble stepped in. Trump and his extremists were promised open discourse on Rumble, with no fear of getting shut down, no editorial standards on their posts, and no fact-checking systems. It is no surprise that the former President and his supporters took such a liking to the platform.
To Pavlovski, “free speech meant completely open debate — and as long as that debate wasn’t openly hateful, racist, or allied with known terrorist groups, it could live on Rumble”. The word openly is particularly important. It means that if hate speech is posted on the site through clear, blatant, language, it may be taken down. However, if that hateful, bigoted, or inappropriate message is implied, suggested, or covertly worded, Rumble will keep the post up on the site regardless of what the meaning behind the message is. This is the largest and most significant contrast between Rumble, and sites like Youtube, Twitter, or Facebook.
Not many people will be blatantly racist or hateful – but many will suggest or use certain terms that imply as such. The issue here is that covert hate speech will be granted permission to be shared, spread, and supported. Free speech is a right and freedom for all – one that is encouraged, and should be utilized to enhance and build a free-willed society. However, should a line be drawn when that free speech goes beyond open conversation and opinion, and turns into a projection of hate, incitements of violence, and harmful misinformation?
Rumble has been proven to promote Covid therapies that are unsanctioned by proper Health authorities, such as Health Canada. This allows misinformation to emerge, and thus propels the idea that vaccines and other Covid precautions/regulations are inefficient, which is a blatant falsehood. Incitements of violence have also been found in comments such as, “It’s probably time for Canadians to start making sure they have enough ammo, to find out what federal fishes live in their environment”, emerge on the site with no attempts for it to be taken down.
Big tech companies like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter censor hate and misinformation such as lies about the presidential elections, misinformation about Covid and regulations, threats and violence, etc., despite ultimately having the same goal as Rumble: open discourse and communication. The only difference is that big-tech companies attempt to create and protect a safe online environment (although perhaps having a harmful environment that is more under the radar) for their users to engage in free discussion. Both Facebook and YouTube policies and protections hold the objectiveto “make sure that [their] policies help to protect people from harmful content”. Rumble, on the other hand, is a platform in which blatant harmful content that generally gets shut down by other big tech platforms (for good reason), is embraced. This often generates communities of hate and misinformation.
The danger here is that these actions spawn communities of extremists who are invigorated by their peers to spew hate. Rumble is the perfect example of an ‘echochamber’, alluding to the idea that people on this site only encounter information that they already believe in / share values with, without rebuttal. There is nothing on this site that will counter far-right ideals and that is why these people enjoy the site; their ideas – no matter how ignorant – will be constantly reinforced, thus generating a feeling of affirmation. The platform condones harmful ideologies which will only mobilize harmful behaviours. The endless toxic cycle this creates, is why such content is taken down in the first place.
With this in mind, Pavlovski has been approached by journalists about the strongly far-right membership of Rumble, to which he has argued that “Rumble is a completely neutral platform”. While Pavlovski claims this neutrality, his partners and affiliations suggest otherwise. Rumble is partnered and affiliated with extreme-right political figures like former U.S. President Donald Trump, and Joe Rogan (a far-right political-media podcaster), who was offered 100 million dollars to work with rumble after having some of his ignorant episodes removed from Spotify for his use of racial slurs and amplifications of falsehoods regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Since McGill University’s School of Public Policy tracks and studies online manipulation and misinformation on sites like Rumble, they took a special interest in investigating the self-proclaimed neutrality of the platform. In their investigation, they created an algorithm that made their “new user” account completely blank with no added information or previous user preferences that would alter the platform’s initial content on display. That way, it was a completely impartial representation and introduction to the platform’s content. They compared Rumble’s landing page to that of Youtube, and found that while Youtube’s recommended videos showed music, chess, experiments, and no political content, Rumble’s landing page showed strictly far-right political content and opinions. For instance, one of the first recommended videos was one that criticized big tech companies. That is not an example of a neutral platform for users. In fact, that is a perfect representation of the true motivation behind Rumble: to fuel hatred and animosity toward big-tech companies, thus attracting more users to Rumble – a far-right media platform that fuels misinformation.
Alternatively, Rumble’s non-neutral landing page could be the result of an algorithm that is tailored to the expected Rumble user (instead of the average person), rather than it being evidence of malicious intent to radicalize new users. The expected Rumble user, given the platform’s reputation and the context of its popularity, is likely coming to the platform with the intention of finding far-right political content.
The dangers associated with falsehoods surrounding the pandemic are too large to ignore, and hate speech can no longer be condoned – especially when it is being amplified on a major media stage. All big-tech social platforms encourage free speech and the ability to voice your own opinion – but they regulate it in such a way that makes it a safe environment for everyone. Rumble’s ignorant revolt against these basic safety standards seems like less of a fight for freedom, and more of a fight for far-right extremism.
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