The censorship storm that erupted at Facebook last week showed again how central the social network is to our lives. An investigation by tech news website Gizmodo revealed that conservative stories were suppressed in the “trending” news section, even though they were “organically trending among the site’s users”.

Facebook hired journalists, which it called “news curators”, to manage this key section of its site and “routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers”, Gizmodo reported. Other, frankly trivial but entertainment-related stories were “artificially” added to the list of “trending” topics.

The uproar on social media — and in the real media, which now count Facebook as the largest referrer of links to their stories — was more than the usual storm-in-a-teacup about how Facebook manipulates its algorithms when determining what to show its users.

It brings to mind the famous quote that is always invoked during debates about censorship: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This way of depicting the challenging nature of free speech is sometimes mistakenly attributed to the French poet Voltaire, but is a conundrum of free speech itself.

It was written by a female author in 1906, but in an era when women were seen as second-class citizens: Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote it in her biography The Friends of Voltaire, which appears under her pseudonym SG Tallentyre.

As quickly as he has sought to dampen this drama, I’m sure Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is no sympathiser with the conservative mind-set that has riven the US as the racist, sexist, misogynistic Donald Trump has swept the Republican nomination for this year’s election.

The whole world has watched in horror at the hate-mongering and small-mindedness that Trump epitomises, from his unrepentant, indefensible comments about women and building walls on the border with Mexico to preventing Muslims from entering America, and all the other bizarre drivel that spews out from his mouth.

Arguably the best summation of Trump’s bigotry appeared, funnily enough, in my Facebook feed this weekend: “When a faithfully married black president [Barack Obama] who was the son of a single mother, the first black editor of the Harvard law review and a professor of constitutional law is considered unintelligent, immoral and anti-American by the right; while a xenophobic, misogynistic, ‘serial philandering’, trust fund kid who quotes from the National Enquirer, peddles conspiracy theories, routinely calls women ugly and fat, calls [former Republican presidential candidate John] McCain a loser for having been a prisoner of war, and who has advocated torture and the bombing of women and children has captured the hearts of the majority of Republicans. This is white supremacy folks. Plain and simple.”

For once I find myself agreeing with Facebook.

Personally, I grew up with enough anti-Semitism and the churlish, petty bullying of bigots. Enough to know that what supposedly passes for free speech is really just thinly disguised hate speech, which makes me not want to read such so-called “conservative” drivel in my timeline. Or anywhere else in the world.

Racist, sexist claptrap doesn’t deserve to be given any airtime, least of all on the Internet’s intranet, as Facebook has become.

Readers of this column will know of my love-hate relationship with Facebook. Over the years I have expressed my lack of trust and irritation at the manipulation of its algorithms.

As much as Facebook has evolved, so has my use and experience of it. It’s become a useful place for me to see what my family around the world is up to, and to get a list of links to read or watch from the smart people I know.

But — it kills me to say it — Evelyn Beatrice Hall was right. Even Donald Trump, moron that he is, must be allowed to speak.

Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail

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