After many months and countless angry thought pieces published around the internet, tech giants Facebook, YouTube, Apple and Spotify have moved to “ban” right-wing provocateur and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and his website Infowars, for violating community guidelines on their respective platforms, such as alleging that the Sandy Hook shooting was a pro-gun control government hoax or that Hillary Clinton is a literal demon from hell. As this “ban” has gone into effect, Jones and his slew of online cellar-dwellers have moved to victimize and martyrize themselves, decrying oppression, violation of free speech, and predicting that this is the opening shot in an oncoming blitz against all conservative media. As usual, Jones is wrong on every level, and is shamelessly exaggerating for attention.
In fact, this is not even a real “ban,” which is why I put the words in quotation marks. A ban would constitute an outright and total removal of all Infowars/Jones content from these companies’ services, as when various web hosting companies banned the neo-Nazi site Stormfront. Instead, Infowars is being subjected to a slew of sorta-kinda-maybe bans. Apple, for example, removed five of six of Infowars’ podcasts, However, it also allowed the official Infowars app to remain available; it has shot from 47th to fourth on Apple’s most-downloaded-apps list. While Facebook did remove the official Infowars page, it has not barred individual users from posting links to Infowars videos. It also hasn’t removed pages from well-known Infowars personalities, such as Paul Joseph Watson. This leaves plenty of room for Infowars to still infiltrate social media with their reporting filth. Yikes.
Legally speaking, being kicked off a social media platform is not a violation of free speech. The First Amendment protects US citizens from government action that burdens, regulates or chills their speech (without good reason). This protection does not extend to private companies, which are free to regulate speech according to their own codes of conduct. In the case of Facebook, the platform clarified that Infowars’ page had glorified violence and hate speech toward Muslims, immigrants and transgender people, a clear violation of their community standards.
If you were Jones, you could do what he’s doing; argue that even if these actions are not a literal violation of free speech, it’s still violates the First Amendment’s spirit. This is a much better argument: loosening the definition of protected free speech has long been advocated by many of Jones’ left-leaning critics. Yet even here Jones will still, in the end, fall short, as free speech under the Constitution doesn’t cover media statements that are untrue and/or made with malicious intent — that is, with a desire to say or do whatever it takes to harm the subject, person or entity. Now, I doubt that Jones would admit to harboring malicious intent, but does anybody honestly think that he really believes that Robert Mueller is a pedophile? It’s not exactly a seismic leap to suggest that Jones made this accusation with the intention of slandering Mueller, and thereby to discredit his investigation into President Trump. If so — and Jones hardly even deserves the if — then even the Constitution does not protect Infowars.
Which brings us to Jones’ third point, and it’s a surprisingly potent one. Can this “ban” be seen as a precursor for tech giants to silencing entities — like conservatives — they don’t like? Granted, Jones making this argument is like the boy crying wolf: Infowars’ own terms of service doesn’t consider it censorship to remove content that violates the platform’s rules (irony!). And conservatives are notorious for falsely portraying themselves as Davids against freedom-hating tech-giant Goliaths. So it’s easy to laugh all of them off.
Still, can we honestly say that progressives and liberals would act any different if it were a left-leaning provocateur getting the boot? I’d like to think so, but it’s hard to tell. What if these platforms decided that the many cesspools of Trump-related conspiracy websites also violated community rules? Would progressives and liberals not argue that these sites are unconventional stress-releasers for delving into the fantastical, that a “ban” on them must be a sign that Mark Zuckerberg has finally sold out to Trump?
And this is where Jones has a point. Even if we strip away Jones’ version of conservative identity politics, banning his content still presents American society with a bridge to cross. Do we want grant corporations the authority to decide what constitutes hate speech? Do we want to give them a taste of regulating public discourse? Does a “ban” set a precedent that will soften up the general public to the idea that our thoughts will be policed, that this might actually be a good thing?
I can’t believe I’m asking this. But is Jones being oppressed?
By making these allegations, Jones is leaning on his best possible argument. It’s what provocateurs have always done when people call out their bullshit. Instead of defending nonsensical arguments on their merit, they hide behind larger conceptual arguments of free speech and oppression, knowing this is the easier path to public vindication. And that’s really the problem with staying on our side of the proverbial bridge. We’re not really left with a noble, virtuous concept of free speech. We’re left with a mutilated “fairness” doctrine that allows assholes to force families of murdered children into hiding and to rouse armed vigilantes to self-investigate businesses for pedophilia. Is the point of free speech to make millionaires out of liars and sensationalists and nothing more?
If free speech is meant to be something more, then I feel that we must cross that bridge. We have to collectively decide that it’s OK to let some content be removed, especially if it contributes nothing more than violence and division. I understand the concerns of other, slightly less wacky right-wing fringe figure like Ben Shapiro, who worry that social media platforms are creating vague standards for what constitutes abusive content. But let’s also not forget that while Shapiro might not be an out-and-out conspiracy theorist like Jones, he still viciously attacked a teenage survivor of a mass shooting. Maybe the point of vague standards is to make people like Shapiro, who toe the line between productive discourse and outright trolling, question whether it should be acceptable to upload something that serves no other purpose beyond inflaming those with less social power than himself.
So while I support seeing what life is like on the other side of the bridge, let’s be cautious. Let’s make sure the bridge isn’t drawn up behind us once we’ve finished our cross.