Recent years have seen a rise in censorship across both the internet and mainstream media platforms worldwide. There have been both government regulation and corporate policies relating directly to what content is permitted and what content is prohibited.
Fintech CEO, financier, and free speech supporter Eugene Plotkin, who has worked with companies and sovereign governments across the globe, shares his perspective on why censorship is on the rise and what each of us can do about it.
“My family immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union when I was young,” Eugene Plotkin recalls. “I talk about that because it’s very relevant to the topic of censorship. Even as a small boy, I remember growing up in an environment where there was constant fear about what you could and could not say. The societal memory of Stalin’s regime cast a multigenerational shadow.”
Eugene Plotkin: ‘A Profound Appreciation for the First Amendment’
According to records released after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, nearly 10 million persons were victimized under Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union for nearly 30 years until his death in 1953.
“Given my childhood, you can understand why I have a profound appreciation for the First Amendment,” Plotkin says. “The right of free speech is core to the identity of the United States of America. Bob Woodward popularized the phrase ‘democracy dies in darkness.’ I absolutely agree. Corruption loves darkness and hates free speech, and that is why the First Amendment is so important.”
The actual text of the First Amendment, as written in the Constitution, is as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” While the amendment addresses multiple freedoms, it may be best known as the amendment that guarantees freedom of speech.
“As a young American, I vividly recall that the idea of censorship was always this thing that happened in other countries, in places that were totalitarian or autocratic,” Eugene Plotkin says. “There was this idea that America and Europe, what we think of as ‘the West,’ was this shining city on a hill where liberty ruled, and people could freely express themselves. Disagreement and debate were part of that — you could disagree with your friend, your neighbor, and your congressperson. You could criticize the majority and know that your voice had the power to make a positive difference.”
Eugene Plotkin on ‘Cancel Culture’
Plotkin recalls debating hot-button topics like racial and gender equality, criminal justice, and war in the Middle East. He points out that while he witnessed passion on both sides of these difficult issues, he never felt that one side tried to censor the other.
“More recently we have witnessed this rise of ‘cancel culture’ and in my mind, ‘cancel’ is just another word for censorship,” Plotkin says. “I think there is a tremendous difference between disagreeing with or even not listening to someone and taking away that person’s right to speak. Removing someone’s voice is akin to taking away their First Amendment rights.”
Plotkin notes that there have been many recent topics that are highly divisive, including the COVID pandemic, the new cold war between East and West, and the armed conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
“I urge anyone reading this to stop and ask themselves one simple question: Have you ever been wrong about anything in your life?” Plotkin asks. “Now imagine that before you realized you were wrong, you took away everyone’s right to tell you that you are wrong. That is what censorship looks like. It is dangerous and it is completely antithetical to the foundations of democracy.”
Eugen Plotkin: ‘Truly Harrowing’
Plotkin cites the information wars that were a side skirmish in the COVID-19 pandemic panic as an example of the lack of robust public deliberation about conflicting opinions.
“The idea that we would stifle scientific debate is truly harrowing,” Plotkin says. “How is it possible that we, as a society, would allow content moderators with no scientific background to silence scientists and medical professionals with Ph.D.s in microbiology and medicine? The whole point of the scientific method is to try and invalidate the prevailing hypothesis — this is how science moves forward.”
Bruno, a famous Italian astronomer and mathematician, was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600. He was one of the first intellectuals to postulate the possibility of an infinite universe, which boldly went far beyond the Earth-centered view of astronomy that prevailed in the Middle Ages. For that, he lost his life — and Plotkin speculates things haven’t changed all that much since then.
“It is deeply regrettable that censorship is on the rise around the globe,” Plotkin says. “Whether it is direct laws or indirect coercion, such as social media platforms banning individuals expressing nonmainstream views, it all has a profoundly chilling effect on public discourse.
“There is something very simple we can all do to support the freedom of speech,” Eugene Plotkin concludes. “Simply vote for those political leaders who are comfortable with debate and who are more afraid of hurting their constituents than being challenged by an alternative viewpoint.”