Alex Jones and the Consequences of Free Speech

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Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire.

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52 Responses

  1. Avatar Em Carpenter says:

    Good take, and legally sound under a First Amendment analysis (despite what the Twitter lawyers say.)
    Facebook and YouTube and their ilk also have rights (corporations are people too!) regarding speech and association.
    If there is danger in large, ubiquitous social media platforms kicking folks out of the town square, so to speak, it is a danger derived from the power we have given it. But it is not the government, as you say, not yet. When Alex Jones is jailed or otherwise prohibited by law from spewing his idiocy (putting aside civilly actionable speech, like defamation), I’ll have his (probably sweaty and gross) back.Report

  2. Avatar Catchling says:

    Any principle that is considered worthless once it has been even slightly abrogated was never much of a principle to begin with. That’s my problem with the current “absolutists” of free speech — they’re like a young lover declaring that the world is cold and empty and hopeless when his beloved is away for even a minute. That’s not love, it’s immaturity.

    Also, this notion of “Nobody gets to restrict anybody,” or whatever, is not practically possible. Alex Jones happens to have built up a large enough following for his social-media banishment to be both noticeable and a political cause célèbre. But thousands of individuals get kicked off or filtered out of social media platforms all the time, often for the same sensible reasons one might ditch Infowars, i.e. they’re simply scam artists.

    Not only that, but I think a solid case can be made that Alex Jones stifles other people’s expression and general freedoms. Parents who lost their children at Sandy Hook have gone into hiding from the death threats of Infowars followers. To treat Jones himself as somehow exempt from the principle of tolerating other ideas, or to act like our hands are tied in sanctioning him for his behavior, is nonsense.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Connecticut senator Chris Murphy sees this as an opportunity to finally start doing the hard work of getting rid of the other bad sites out there.

    Infowarsis the tip of a giant iceberg of hate and lies that uses sites like Facebook and YouTube to tear our nation apart. These companies must do more than take down one website. The survival of our democracy depends on it.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) August 6, 2018

    The survival of our democracy depends on it.Report

    • Avatar Em Carpenter says:

      Yeah… that is much more troubling from a 1A standpoint.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I’m not a fan of Alex Jones. I’m pretty sure that the remix video of him singing “Chemtrails” to the tune of the Ducktales theme song is the most I’ve spent watching him.

        But if the response to banning Alex Jones is not “good, the SOB is gone” but “now we can start banning even more people!”, then the whole “slippery slope!” argument that only risible crazy people tend to make in response to this sort of thing has pretty much been demonstrated to be an accurate take on the state of affairs.

        This isn’t some rando keyboard commando in a basement. This is a US Senator.Report

        • You are right of course. It’s not just Murphy, the entire Facebook thing was congress trying to find an excuse to get their claws into the internet, and they think they can use social media as their reasoning to do so. And if enough people do not keep their heads with things like “shadowbanning” and the “tweeting while conservative” stuff, they will get plenty of bi-partisan support to do so.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            the entire Facebook thing was congress trying to find an excuse to get their claws into the internet,

            It might be worth noting that Facebook engaged in criminal behavior in the UK for allowing Cambridge Analytica to harvest user data without consent. And here in the US

            Facebook faces multiple inquiries by federal agencies. The Justice Department and the F.B.I. each recently broadened their inquiries into Cambridge Analytica by also focusing on Facebook. In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission has started an investigation into Facebook’s statements on the matter, and the Federal Trade Commission is looking into whether the company violated a privacy agreement with the agency.

            DOJ, FBI, SEC, and FTC. None of which are congress.Report

            • Then punish them criminally, and I will applaud the effort. But that wasn’t the main focus of the congressional hearings, or their primary focus. It was a pretext, but you can tell the seriousness of that pretext by how precious little they did about it once the camera’s were off.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                It was a pretext, but you can tell the seriousness of that pretext by how precious little they did about it once the camera’s were off

                So, Congress actually *doesn’t* want to get its claws into the internet? Which is it? Earlier you said they did.

                Oh, never mind.Report

    • The survival of our democratic republic depends on making sure sitting senators cannot influence, or be unduly influenced by, private companies no matter how much he dislikes it.Report

    • Avatar InMD says:

      What could possibly go wrong?

      Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      Yeah, elected officials have a lot of power, implicit and explicit, and while I’d be surprised if anybody has an enforceable right to prevent Murphy from saying such things, he shouldn’t be saying such things, and doing so really is bad from a free speech standpoint.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        It comes down to “do you see Free Speech as a USG/First Amendment thing?” question versus “Do you see The Enlightenment as a set of beliefs worth holding and Free Speech is one of the things that follows from The Enlightenment?”

        For what it’s worth, I think that we (as a society) see Free Speech as an American kinda thing rather than America as an Enlightenment kinda thing.

        And if America changes (and, of course, it will evolve) then Free Speech will evolve and, someday, it’ll be left behind the way we left behind segregation.Report

        • Avatar pillsy says:

          During the Enlightenment, if you wanted to get your message out there, it was common to go out, buy a printing press, and put it our yourself.

          I believe Murphy’s comments are contrary to the spirit of that, but in a way that has a long and disreputable history in the US.

          But Google et al. kicking Jones to the curb? Perfectly in line with the liberal tradition.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            If you’ve been thinking about buying a sign for your place of business, you can get one here.Report

          • Avatar Dan Miller says:

            What if it was Comcast or his web hosting service kicking him to the curb? I agree that Facebook et al are in the legal right here; but I’m wary of giving this much power to private corporations. 60 years ago they’d have banned the Mattachine Society too.Report

            • Avatar Will H. says:

              Same here.
              FB, et al., are definitionally public service; i.e., they perform a quasi-govermental function, even if they do so for a profit.

              So what if this guy was disallowed from public transportation due to these websites?
              A different matter than if he were to merely advertise his content on the side of the metro.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Care to make the case that they perform a Quasi-governmental function?

                ISPs, sure. Email providers, yes. Social media? Gonna have to build that argument for me.Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                @oscar-gordon
                Ok. Here goes:

                1): It costs not one penny more for one more user to be added.
                2): They operate under the auspices of an artificially protective government environment.*
                3): Ubiquity of use.

                An ISP means nothing, if there is nothing there to connect to.

                * For a number of reasons, which I first considered going in to, but opted against it.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                @will-h

                1) This is meaningless. The cost of adding a user of a service is not relevant to whether or not it is a quasi-governmental function.

                2) You are going to have to be a little more specific here.

                3) Also irrelevant. If ubiquity was important, grocery stores would be regulated like water utilities.

                You need to make a case that the service is important to functioning within society. Having access to the internet or email is important to society since both are common means by which people interact with government and private business. If you could not get online and check email, your ability to participate in society is limited. Not being able to use FB is a greater stretch. And yet both ISPs and email services reserve the right to deny you service if you violate their TOS (and in most cases, you really have to work to violate a TOS, but still).

                So even if you do make a case that social media is a quasi-governmental function that should be more regulated, I could probably still argue that Alex Jones violated FB TOS and they were more than patient with him before giving him the boot.

                Quasi-governmental != UtilityReport

              • Avatar Pinky says:

                Item 1 alludes to the standard economic definition of a natural monopoly. I’m not sure it applies here, but it definitely is relevant to whether something can and/or should be treated as a utility.Report

              • Avatar pillsy says:

                That applies to an incredibly wide range of commercial software vendors, and any social media site.

                Given the number of contending, rising, and falling software vendors, and social media sites, I think it’s hard to really believe that they’re quasi-governmental.Report

              • Avatar Will H. says:

                There’s an argument to be made in that direction, but it depends on how much you’re willing to stretch it out of shape as to how far that argument can continue.Report

            • Avatar pillsy says:

              There’s a much stronger case that ISPs are more like natural monopolies, and definitely that they’re like common carriers.

              As for giving that much power to big corporations, well, welcome to capitalism.Report

  4. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Since I was like “meh, it’s Gawker”, I gotta be like “meh, it’s Alex Jones”.Report

  5. Avatar Pinky says:

    My concern is that the major corporations seem to do these things in concert. There’s nothing unconstitutional about that, but it does seem like bad faith.Report

    • Fair point, lets walk through it:

      So if we give BigTech the benefit of the doubt (which we should never do without skepticism) the argument goes something along the lines of they were waiting for one to jump in then all of them did, so that when the inevitable legal action comes they can all go, see it’s not just us. The more conspiratorial folks will see collusion by big tech, and indeed some are taking prior Senate testimony (somewhat out of context) and spinning it as direct orders from Gov’t to these companies and this is what happens.

      The truth is somewhere in the middle probably. These are businesses, and what it mostly comes down to is it isn’t good for business to be associated or platform Jones in the long run. Once they decided it was bad for business, either bottom line or PR, they moved on him. We can debate the motives and ramifications, but I suspect that’s the nuts and bolts of it. Might be wrong.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        If I were one of the tech giants, and the others moved against someone with a large following, I’d happily rake in the extra business. I can only think of two reasons I’d join them in banning him: pressure being applied to all the companies, or ideological commonality among the companies.Report

        • Avatar pillsy says:

          “Pressure” comes in many forms, many of them legitimate.

          Ideological conformity between the companies is fine. One of the lovely things about owning a company is that you can direct it to act in line with your ideology.Report

        • Avatar dragonfrog says:

          If I were one of the tech giants, and the others moved against someone with a large following of vile, toxic, abusive, delusional slugs, who regularly ignore his shallow “it’s just performance art” disclaimers and horribly harass innocent people, up to and including death and rape threats, and occasionally go beyond that to things like raiding pizza restaurants with assault rifles – I would be willing to take some pretty extreme measures to avoid attracting such “extra business”.

          Those are not customers whose tiny fraction of a penny per ad click is worth the expense and hassle of dealing with them on your platform. They must drive away far more business than they provide.Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      Shrug.

      They don’t owe anybody but their shareholders good faith, really.

      Maybe we should change that (there certainly are good arguments to that effect) but if we do, gotta say Alex Jones is at the very tail end of the list of reasons.Report

  6. Mark Kruger Mark Kruger says:

    I have no love for Alex Jones. My only concern is control and monopoly here. Consider if AT&T had denied phone service to someone back in the 70s. They might indeed have other communication avenues open to them, but they would be effectively “shut out”. These 4 or 5 big players have the sort of power to effectively eliminate a voice. Shutting out Alex Jones is probably a good thing (ha) – but that much power in the hands of a few corps…. I dunno. It worries me a little.Report

    • It worries me as well. However, using the government to reign in those corporations based solely on content is a far bigger and wider reaching concern for me at the moment.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog says:

      A phone connection is not really the same as a youtube channel though. An internet connection is a better analogy, I think. It’s the thing that allows you to access health information, airline schedules, business addresses, government services, etc., in the same way a phone did in the 70’s.Report

      • Avatar pillsy says:

        Yeah if his ISP cut him off from ordinary consumer data service, I think he’d have that kind of claim.

        Whatever YouTube and Facebook are, common carriers they are not.Report

      • Mark Kruger Mark Kruger says:

        Perhaps – I certainly see your point. But if a few powerful platforms become the de facto way we communicate our point of view, I would hope they would not collaborate to mute certain voices. Alex Jones is a voice we can all agree should take a break, but what about Jordan Petersen? What about Bill Maher? Each has said things highly objectionable to certain groups.

        I get it – the platforms are a sounds system, a megaphone. They are not speech per se. But we should be concerned that profit driven entities have enormous control over the volume level.Report

        • Avatar Maribou says:

          @mark-kruger I visit, enjoy, email people about, etc etc etc etc sites that don’t depend on any of those tech giants every week. (On good weeks, I do that every day.) I’m also a participant in all kinds of big and small social media networks, both for-profit and non, that, while not the mad enormo hugeness of the big ones, are perfectly cromulent sources of interesting stuff to read.

          No one *needs* a megaphone (almost typed MAGAphone there, oh Freudian fingers) to find a substantial audience in this day and age. And if they want the megaphone, let them understand that it doesn’t go hand in hand with financial scams and hate speech. (That said, it’s definitely NOT the job of sitting congressmen to target anybody in the way noted above.)Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          but what about Jordan Petersen? What about Bill Maher?

          When either of them says anything remotely valuable, I’ll start to worry about it. Either of them (and most of the other names that might come up) losing their public access would mostly be a lowering of the noise level, and overall a good thing. Seriously, If Victor Davis Hanson and the entire New York Times oped staff were the next to be “censored”, the world would be a better place.Report

  7. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    A few comments have touched on this subject already.

    Facebook and Twitter (and for that matter this very project) are private entities and we’re entirely cool with them saying “Alex Jones and his toxic paranoid ranting have no place on our platforms.” And because Alex Jones is so easy to dislike, I dislike him, and feel little reason to do more than muse with slight nervousness at the power being displayed here, because I like how the power is being used.

    But I recall that I was told from some quarters sympathetic to and overlapping substantially with my own constellation of beliefs to be wary of repealing net neutrality rules. Sometimes in rather hyperbolic language.

    Granted that an ISP is not exactly the same thing as an online platform. But they’re both potentially gatekeepers in our universe. Private gatekeepers who possess the ability to engage in viewpoint discrimination. It is effectively only the fear of marketplace backlash* that prevents such gatekeepers from filtering out viewpoints they find unpalatable.

    If “broad principles of free speech” mean looking beyond the relatively simplistic analysis of “Government censorship bad, private censorship whaddyagonnado?” then I don’t see a good way for someone who opposed net neutrality to cheer Facebook censoring InfoWars, nor a good way for the converse position to stand.

    I may be okay with private entities making case-by-case determinations, but gol-dam it took Facebook a long time to get around to this and its lethargy in doing so may well have contributed to us getting stuck with Trump.

    * Well, maybe also creating sophisticated enough algorithms for detection and censorship of such viewpoints, but that seems to be a problem which Russian trollbot farms have found at least partial solutions.Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      If a person thinks ISPs (and cell phone companies) should be regulated as common carriers (I do), then there’s really no issue with the apparent paradox of believing both things are true.Report

      • Avatar Catchling says:

        Exactly. A magazine like The New Yorker or National Review can have as much editorial control as it pleases, but my local post office branch can’t refuse to deliver either one to my house.Report

    • Avatar pillsy says:

      The problem with repealing Net Neutrality is that it makes it harder to compete in various parts of the Internet/media space, meaning that you undermine the ability of people to say, “Screw you, I’m going to start my own social media network, with hookers, and blackjack!” should they go too far and start banning a lot of people who aren’t as odious as Jones.Report

  8. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Two thoughts:

    As with others, I’m a bit uncomfortable with all the big players taking action at once, but it’s not a 1A violation. Now if someone showed that there was, perhaps privately during a senate hearing, a case of a senatorial aide taking an exec aside and saying, “You need to shut Alex Jones down. By the way, that’s a really nice corporation you have there, shame if we happened to dream up some big new corporate taxes for it.” Then we have an issue, thanks to the Quid Pro Quo.

    Second, is this really so much about what Alex Jones says, or what he does and/or encourages others to do? From what I hear, I get the impression he gets awful close at times to the line regarding what is & is not protected, and I can certainly see a corporation just deciding that he’s gotten too close too often, and has made the legal department anxiously re-read their liability insurance policies with alarming frequency.Report

    • Avatar fillyjonk says:

      Yeah. On the one hand, I am uncomfortable with “this is speech we don’t like so we shouldn’t let people hear it,” but on the other – “we should be required to let people scream “FIRE” in a crowded theater” and it seems there are enough unhinged people out there who don’t think what the guy does is coldly-calculated performance art to get money (I have no idea how much, if any, of his stuff he believes, and I don’t really care).

      (And in general, online hate mobs are a thing. I know someone who writes about publishing medical studies and getting online knee-jerk hateful responses from patients. Not death threats or anything, but I think there’s a certain point where nasty comments just wear you down, especially if you feel like “everyone else I know can see what those people are saying about me”.)

      It’s hard to draw a line though, but I like the analogy Catchling proposed, about “The “New Yorker” can refuse to publish a piece, but the USPS cannot refuse to deliver the “New Yorker” to my house”

      I dunno, though. I bet we see a lot more people get deplatformed, including some less inflammatory than Jones. I think we’re seeing a seismic shift in a lot of things. It’s kind of like the James Gunn thing – did they go too far in firing him? Probably, but we’re trying to navigate a new technology and its morals, ethics, and even etiquette.

      I guess what I’m saying is: we probably wind up cutting off healthy tissue along with the diseased, and we see a certain degree of collateral damage. Is that bad? Yeah, but I think it’s inevitable given how people are.Report

    • I’m very uncomfortable with local TV stations being bought up by right-wing chains that force their local newscasters to become pro-Trump propagandists. But, hey, the free market at work, right?Report

  9. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    Perhaps the Onion said it best:

    “If we allow giant media platforms to single out individual users for harassing the families of murdered kindergarteners, it could lead to a nightmare scenario of measured and well-thought-out public discourse.”

    Or not, but it’s still funny.Report

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