Of course, Facebook, YouTube, and other media are free to ban conspiracy-mongers such as Alex Jones from their platforms. They have a right to dictate the contours of permissible speech on their sites and to enforce those standards dutifully or hypocritically or ideologically, using any method they see fit. No one seriously disputes this.
Twitter also has a right, as a private entity, to take a stand and, as the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, explains it, dispassionately allow free exchanges of ideas—even the ugly ones Jones’ Infowars offers—as long as users don’t break the company’s rules. Yet here we are, watching a number of journalists—supposed sentinels of free expression—demanding that billionaire CEOs start policing speech that makes them uncomfortable.
Jones, who has made numerous hateful and reckless remarks, should make any reasonable person uncomfortable. In this regard, though, he’s certainly not alone. And if Facebook is now guaranteeing a platform free of unpleasant voices who break its vague terms of service, the company has lots of work ahead.
To some extent, I can understand how frustrating it is watching a bigoted conspiracy theorist who has destroyed lives be provided a voice on a large media platform. After all, I’ve been trying to ignore Al Sharpton’s cable show for years. Yet if I were running a social media platform, I’d like to think I would allow nearly anyone—minus those who threaten violence or otherwise break the law—speak.
It’s not as if users wouldn’t possess a block button. I can’t recall a single time, in my decade using social media, that I opened an Infowars link. I doubt most of you have, either. Even if you did, you wouldn’t melt. They’re just words.
And though the ejection of Jones isn’t the end of the world and it doesn’t necessarily portend a mass expulsion of less extreme voices, let’s stop acting as if conservatives are foolish for harboring some concerns about the incrementalist goals of would-be liberal censors.
Every day, contemporary liberals run around accusing Donald Trump supporters of being in league with white supremacists and social conservatives of being unrepentant bigots. Republicans are regularly charged with propagating fascist views or attempting to murder Americans.
It’s implausible to imagine a future in which liberal activists don’t demand that Republican groups be de-platformed. We already see liberal groups targeting advertisers of popular conservative radio hosts and trying to have the National Rifle Association, an organization regularly compared to terrorists, thrown off platforms on moral grounds. The slippery slope already exists.
Take a recent video from the liberal Vox, which ostensibly explores the “tough debate [about] censorship and free speech on the internet.” “It’s not just Alex Jones,” says Vox. Among some of the offensive (in reality, some of it is merely provocative) comments on immigration and Islam offered by, as Vox labels them, “YouTube’s most extreme creators,” we see Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens, saying, “News flash: Everybody hates feminism.”
You may find her remark tendentious or simplistic, but under no reasonable interpretation can it be described as “extreme.” Yet conflating partisan Republican positions with hate speech or intolerable ideas has been a long-standing strategy on the left in its efforts to stigmatize views. It’s liberals who often make little distinction between Infowars and mainstream conservatives. And it’s conservatives who need to worry.
People struggle—or, more likely, pretend to struggle—to make a distinction between defending the value of free expression and defending those who use it. Arguing that it’s preferable to err on the side of more speech on a giant user-generated website doesn’t make you an ally of Jones any more than defending the right of The New York Times’ editorial board to hire Sarah Jeong makes you a small-minded racist.
What it may mean, though, is that you’re more troubled by the prospect of authoritarian ideologues who believe that speech is tantamount to terrorism attempting to dictate what our discourse looks like than you are about some media-generated panic about Jones.
Now, it’s true that if you don’t like the standards that social media sites have instituted or you don’t like the users who populate the place, you’re free to leave and find another outlet to amplify your thoughts. There’s no God-given right to be on Facebook or Twitter. But once social media sites take on the responsibility of policing speech, they are transforming themselves into adjudicators of what ideas are tolerable on purportedly open platforms.
That’s a precarious position moving forward. Infowars was an easy target. Others will surely be more complicated.
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