Conspiracy theorist David Icke has been banned from YouTube and Facebook for peddling his usual nutty narratives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This has already backfired. He’s trending on Twitter, he’s in the international news, and the platform that first interviewed him — London Real — has raised $1 million to host a live interview with him on Daily Motion.
In other words, an ex-footballer who believes alien lizards are running the world, a man who deserves to be pitied, mocked and ultimately ignored, now has the world’s attention and the dignity of a martyr. If all those tech giants are trying to silence him, he must be on to something, right?
This episode brings to mind the ‘Letter Concerning Enthusiasm’ by the Earl of Shaftesbury, an English enlightenment philosopher. He was writing at the start of the 18th century, when Britain was emerging from centuries of religious war, and beginning to establish itself as a relatively stable, secular, commercial democracy. One of the ways Britain put its centuries of religious violence behind it was to condemn ‘enthusiasm’ — by which Shaftesbury and others meant getting overly carried away by nutty beliefs (particularly religious beliefs). We should try, instead, to be calm and reasonable.
In the first decade of the century, a band of French Protestant prophets, who had been kicked out of Catholic France, arrived in London and starting preaching apocalypse in Spitalfields. The End Times were nigh, they said. They went into ecstatic convulsions while they prophesied. It was quite the show — they would have done very well on YouTube.
Shaftersbury, in the first exploration of what is now called ‘social contagion’, talks about how ‘panics’ spread from face to face and mind to mind, especially during times of stress and adversity:
there are many panics in mankind in addition to the kind that only concerns fear. For example, religion is also panic; and panic occurs when enthusiasm of any kind is worked up, as often on sad occasions it is. For vapours naturally rise; and especially in bad times when men’s spirits are low — in public calamities, during periods of bad food and unhealthy air, when convulsions happen in nature: storms, earthquakes, or other amazing prodigies — at those times the panic is bound to run high.
How, then, should a government deal with such panics when they spread — such as the 5G panic, for example? Should one censor the false prophets or even lock them up? Certainly not, says Shaftesbury. Conspiracy theories spread because of nervousness and agitation, and
using military force or civil punishments as a cure…is bound to make things even sadder, increasing the cause of the social illness. Forbidding men’s natural fears and trying to overpower them by other fears — what an unnatural procedure that is!
If you lock up such gloomy prophets, you only add to their narcissistic sense of their galactic importance and the cosmic plot against them. And you give them the publicity and glamour of a martyr. Instead, you should counter-act gloomy conspiracy with cheerful mockery:
It has been the wisdom of some wise nations to let people be fools as much as they pleased, and never to punish seriously anything that deserved only to be laughed at and was after all best cured by that innocent remedy.
He notes with pleasure that the French Prophets, rather than being persecuted in London, were tolerated and instead soundly mocked in a puppet show in Bartholomew Fair:
we don’t merely deny these prophesying enthusiasts the honour of a persecution, we have delivered them over to the cruelest contempt in the world. I am told that they are at this very moment the subject of a choice doll- or puppet-show at Bartholomew Fair, where presumably their strange voices and involuntary agitations are admirably well acted by the motion of wires and hooting of pipes.
This, indeed, is the best form of defence against conspiracies and cult-thinking — calm reason and gentle mockery.
I don’t know if this is the last word on free speech. Should social media platforms should allow anything — Jihadism, Nazism, paedophilia, snuff movies and live-streamed shootings? Some hardcore libertarians would say ‘yes’, and some platforms offer just that. Most of us would agree there need to be some limits.
But right now, with all the uncertainty and fear of this pandemic, when even governments are trading conspiracy theories, I don’t think we can try to shut down or de-platform every person peddling them. That only fans the flames of their narcissism and gives them the illusion of importance. This is a great week for David Icke and his lizards.