Book Burnings in the Digital Age: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and now….Poetry?

By Janet Phelan

“Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned” — Heinrich Heine, German poet

A recent article in the Washington Post detailed the possible effect on freedom of expression and other protected rights in the wake of the coronavirus. The Post article states,

If governments are allowed to impose indefinite and disproportionate restrictions on access to information, free expression, free assembly and privacy in the name of stopping Covid-19, the negative effects will extend far beyond this outbreak. People will suffer a lasting deterioration in basic freedoms, and they will lose confidence in the institutions tasked with protecting them.

Notably, the article failed to mention the attacks on freedom of expression generated in the United States. Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft, Reddit, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter have put their collective heads together and issued a statement concerning “acceptable” corona content. In the wake of this statement videos are being removed and YouTube accounts demonetized, Facebook posts are being deleted and Twitter accounts are being removed.

The recent removal from YouTube of a controversial London Real TV interview with David Icke sparked international media coverage.

And now, poetry is also being censored.

Yep, you read that right: Poetry, which so many people view as arcane, esoteric and irrelevant, but which poets tend to feel passionately about. Poetry, the tradition of which is thousands of years old and has included historical, mythological, political and religious expressions.

The history of burning books

It was not only political tracts that were burned in Hitler’s infamous book burnings. Poetry by German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine, fiction by Jack London and Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, and Bertol Brecht’s plays were also heaped onto the fire.

Book burnings have a long history. Around 600 BC, Hebrew prophet Jeremiah read a scroll which declared that the King of Babylon would destroy Judah. King  Jehoiakim, King of Judah, subsequently burnt the scroll and ordered Jeremiah arrested.

Sorcery scrolls were burnt by early converts to Christianity in the year 55 AD.

Emperor Hadrian considered the Jewish teachings to be seditious and burned not only the Torah but also a number of rebellious rabbis, including Haninah ben Teradion, who refused to obey the ban.

The famous library in Alexandria was repeatedly burnt in the Middle Ages, resulting in the destruction of irreplaceable manuscripts.

The texts belonging to the Cathars, which were considered to be a heretical sect in the Languedoc region of France, were burnt as were many of the Cathars themselves.

Okay, this is all ancient history. So let’s not forget that there were calls for The Beatles’ records and memorabilia to be burned in 1966, following John Lennon’s statement that he was more popular than Jesus.

The list of book burnings is too lengthy to include in this article. Buddhist texts, Christian and Catholic texts, Jewish religious texts, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hindu texts and the National Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina and more have all been heaped on the pyre at one time or another in our incendiary and repressive history.

And as we can see, book burnings may also involve the burning of the book’s author.

Literature under attack

Ideas are dangerous. This video discusses why oppressive regimes will target not only political or religious tracts, but culture itself.  “The first thing  every totalitarian regime does….is confiscation of history and confiscation of culture,” states Iranian author Alar Nafisi, whose book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, was banned in her native land of Iran.

In this video, book critic Ruth Franklin states “All literature is dangerous to a regime that fears the free flow of ideas.”

“For tyrants, control is the main thing,” adds Azar Nafisi.

But Poetry…..?

Recently, I was invited to participate in an online poetry open mic, via zoom (in order to accommodate social distancing mandated by Covid-19).

The following email thread reveals the organizer’s (B.G.) attempts to censor certain ideas and my response. We’ll start with a section of her initial email:

What is not allowed.

Really speaking nothing should be banned from a word weavers self-expression. But I will put 1 rule down and that is that no conspiracy stuff will be allowed to be read. We are all in uncertain times and many going through anxiety. It is very important that we consciously control what we are ingesting – not just food – but also news. Social media is rife with all kinds of fear mongering and conspiracy theories and news that only make us panic.

Let us not go there in this forum.

So no conspiracy theory in this forum……

Warm Regards,


I replied “”No conspiracy stuff?” What in the world does that mean? “ I then followed that up to expand on my concerns:

Hey B.,

I am an investigative journalist. As such, I specialize in digging up what may be considered inconvenient facts about what the powerful are doing. I happen to be the daughter of veteran investigative reporter James Phelan, whose work on the Kennedy assassination, published in the Saturday Evening Post and referenced in many books, could be considered as “conspiracy reporting,” as it certainly debunked certain critical aspects of the ongoing investigation into JFK’s assassination.

With this sort of history in mind, I am concerned about the chilling effect that you may have unintentionally imposed on this group and would appreciate some clarification here. I don’t intend to read any journalistic pieces during the open mic but some of my work may reflect alternative viewpoints.



This was the following exchange:


Hi Janet,

If you do a simple google search –  “Conspiracy theories” – you will find lots of material.


That does not address my question. Inconvenient truths are often so labeled in an effort to suppress them. For example, the official story about the Kennedy assassination is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Almost no one believes that at this point in time — nevertheless, alternative explanations are officially labeled as “conspiracy theory.”

The very idea that someone would attempt to suppress my or anyone else’s creative endeavors is of grave concern to me.


When she did not respond to my concerns I repeated them. I then received this response and all hell broke loose.


Dear (Group),

For the questions Janet has raised, I stand firm on what I wrote in my original email.

“What is not allowed.

Really speaking nothing should be banned from a word weavers self-expression. But I will put 1 rule down and that is that no conspiracy stuff will be allowed to be read. We are all in uncertain times and many going through anxiety. It is very important that we consciously control what we are ingesting – not just food – but also news. Social media is rife with all kinds of fear mongering and conspiracy theories and news that only make us panic.

Let us not go there in this forum.”

I am very clear that any conspiracy theories of world domination, forced vaccinations, military rule, biological warfare etc etc at this time is unhealthy to ingest, not proven true and therefore will not have a place in this forum.

If any of you feel you don’t want to participate in the Open Mics on Fridays, send me a note. I will take you off the list.

Warmly, B.

Incredibly, she is still calling this an “open mic” when it is obviously a controlled mic.

I responded as follows:

This is simply fascinating. Biological warfare, according to you, is a “conspiracy theory.” Are you aware that there is an international treaty organization which was formed at the UN in order to ban these weapons? Are you aware that the treaty organization has no verification protocol and thus is unable to even consider allegations that the treaty has been violated?

I have been fortunate enough to participate in two meetings of the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva, at the United Nations. I have been interviewed by major media outlets about this issue, outlets which refer to me as an expert on bioweapons. I assure you, biological weapons are not a conspiracy theory.

I am going ahead and writing an article up on what you are trying to accomplish with this. I encourage all participants to also take a look at this excellent article from the Guardian (not a conspiracy rag), as to the dangers of attempting to squelch free speech in the midst of the corona crisis.

Don’t let free speech be a casualty of coronavirus. We need it more than ever | Cas Mudde

She then blocked me on FB and apparently removed me from the open mic email list, after declaring that “I have full right to my beliefs.”

As if I were the one trying to censor her speech, not the other way around….

This correspondence reveals a certain mindset. The open and free flow of ideas is something to be restricted now, in any form in which the ideas may appear. The social media efforts to contain and remove “unacceptable” corona virus content are now extending to censorship of artistic expressions. And in some people’s minds, that’s just fine.

The removal of content from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter can be considered the equivalent of digital age book burnings. Poetry, which is such an esoteric interest and hardly of mainstream focus, is apparently also now to be thrown onto the flames, should it reflect “alternative” perceptions.

As Ray Bradbury wrote in his science fiction classic, Fahrenheit 451,

A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?

And to add to this, given the bloody history of suppression of ideas and idea makers, who knows what may happen to the well-read man?

Janet Phelan is an investigative journalist and author of the groundbreaking exposé, EXILE. Her articles previously appeared in such mainstream venues as the Los Angeles Times, Orange Coast Magazine, Long Beach Press Telegram, etc. In 2004, Janet “jumped ship” and now exclusively writes for independent media. She is also the author of two collections of poetry—The Hitler Poems and Held Captive. She resides abroad. You are invited to support her work on Buy Me A Coffee here:

Image: Truthstream Media

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