Facebook Mislabels Historically Accurate Posts by Gay Rights Campaigner Peter Tatchell as “Partly False”

Tatchell correctly identified Henry Kissinger as the architect of an illegal U.S. bombing campaign that potentially killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. Facebook’s fact-checkers disagreed.

Update, November 24, 2020: Facebook has removed its disclaimer from Tatchell’s posts, but did not return a request for comment.

British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has long been a thorn in the side of Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State under Richard Nixon. In 2002, for example, Tatchell attempted to have Kissinger arrested and tried for Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, which historians estimate resulted in civilian and military deaths upwards of 300,000.

As Tatchell recounted in two identical posts on Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) yesterday:

[Kissinger] had authorised the mass indiscriminate bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, which killed possibly hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The judge accepted that there was a potential legal case against Kissinger and even discussed with me where he could be held on remand awaiting trial. But in the end the court doubted that I had the capacity to bring former Nixon administration officials to London to testify as to Kissinger’s culpability. I did not succeed but only on the matter of being able to secure witness testimony in London.

Historical texts and news reports appear to support that: Kissinger was a key architect of the Cambodian bombing campaigns; that estimated casualties, while difficult to calculate with any precision, were likely in the hundreds of thousands; and that Tatchell brought a legal case against Kissinger in 2002, which was thrown out due to the presiding judge’s “serious misgivings” over Tatchell’s ability to secure evidence in the form of witness testimony.

Despite containing seemingly accurate information, Tatchell’s posts were restricted by Facebook’s fact-checking team and given the following boilerplate disclaimer: “Partly false information. The same information was checked in another post by independent fact-checkers.”

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The disclaimer doesn’t identify which aspects of Tatchell’s posts are allegedly false, merely stating: “Only two of the quotes here are close to correct.”

But it does contain a link to an April 15, 2019 article by Facebook’s partnered fact-checking website FactCheck.org, “What Kissinger Has Said About Trump,” which says nothing about Kissinger’s role in the bombing of Cambodia or Tatchell’s 2002 legal case.

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I’ve asked Facebook for comment.

In the meantime, Tatchell has posted on Instagram about the errant fact-check:

“Hi Everyone. @instagram is flagging my post earlier today about Henry Kissinger as ‘partly false’ on the grounds that Kissinger did not say certain things that I supposedly claimed he said about #Trump. But I never mentioned Trump or anything that #Kissinger may have said about Trump. I was highlighting the evidence that Kissinger authorised war crimes in #Cambodia in the 1970s. Algorithms gone mad? #instagram should apologise and remove the flag from my post. So far they have not :-(“

Q&A with Peter Tatchell

Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights” – Renowned human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell answers my questions on racism, transphobia and freedom of speech

For over 40 years, British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has worked tirelessly to advance the causes of freedom, civil rights and social equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people worldwide.

As a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front, Tatchell helped organise Britain’s first gay pride rally in 1972. He is also a founding member oLGBT activist group Outrage!, known for its theatrical style of campaigning and flair for political agitprop.

In February this year, Tatchell was forced to fend off unsubstantiated accusations of racism, transphobia and of having incited violence against transgender people from National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT officer” Fran Cowling.

To recap: Tatchell and Cowling were scheduled to speak at an event at Canterbury Christ Church University on Feb. 15. However, Cowling declined to appear on stage with Tatchell, citing an open letter he had signed in the Observer newspaper last year decrying the NUS’ policy of deplatforming politically unpopular individuals from speaking at universities.

On Feb. 22, over 160 academics and activists signed an open letter condemning Tatchell for “bullying, vilifying, and inciting a media furor” against Cowling (you can read Tatchell’s account of what happened by clicking here).

I contacted Tatchell a few months ago to ask him about the incident with Cowling and the broader issues around freedom of speech. He generously agreed to answer my questions.

Q. Why do you think freedom of speech is so important?

A. Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights and should be defended robustly. It can only be legitimately restricted by the law when it involves harmful libels, harassment, menaces, threats and incitements to violence.

As someone who has risked life and limb for LGBT rights, how do you respond to Cowling’s accusations of transphobia and of inciting violence against transgender people?

She has produced no evidence for those preposterous claims – nor has anyone else. It is pure fabrication.

Are you disappointed in the response from the 160+ academics and activists who signed an open letter condemning you for leaking Cowling’s emails?

Those academics are part of a global network of sectarians who have been attacking me and other activists for several years. They spend more time [complaining] than fighting real racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and corporate power. Their open letter is full of the usual fabrications and unsubstantiated allegations.

What’s your opinion of the NUS policy on “no-platforming” speakers with offensive or politically incorrect views?

No-platforming should be restricted to people who incite violence, such as some far right and Islamist demagogues.

Why is it important that students listen to, engage with and debate people who hold these views?

Hateful and extremist ideas should be challenged, protested and refuted. Bad ideas are most effectively countered by good ideas backed up by rational argument and evidence. Heavy-handed legal restrictions on free speech undermine the democratic, liberal values that extremists oppose and that we cherish.

Bans and censorship don’t defeat bigotry. They merely suppress it. Whereas, exposing bigotry in open debate helps discredit and defeat it, as happened to Nick Griffin and the BNP. Bad ideas are best and most effectively defeated by good ideas.

How would you persuade student activists like Cowling, who perhaps don’t know what it’s like for people living in places such as Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe, that free speech is worth fighting for?

Freedom of speech is one of the most precious and important human rights. It can only be legitimately restricted when someone makes false, damaging allegations – such as that a person is a rapist or tax fraudster – or when they engage in threats, harassment or the endorsement of violence.

A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offence to someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused great religious offence in their time.

Generations of British people fought and suffered to secure the right to free speech. In many parts of the world people are still suffering for speaking out, including in Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia. It is an insult to their sacrifices when students and others are so quick to suppress the free speech of others they disagree with.


To learn more about Peter Tatchell’s humanitarian work, click here.
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