Alex Jones and his Infowars website have been removed and banned from YouTube, Facebook, Apple, and Spotify among the most popular social media platforms. As of this moment, Twitter claims to be reviewing CNN claims that Jones and Infowars violate Twitter’s standards. What should we think about this?
Jones has made many ridiculously false claims, such as the belief that Sept. 11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened and that Michelle Obama is a transgendered person with male genitalia. “An InfoWars video posted in July 2018 falsely declared that the ‘CIA admits transgenderism is a plot to depopulate humanity.’” Twitter-Infowars-Alex Jones But accuracy and honesty haven’t been criteria for banning posts or President Trump’s tweeter account would have been closed long ago. Who is to decide whose lies can be tweeted and whose can’t?
Hate speech, which violates Twitter’s rules, is another matter, as is the promotion of violence. Twitter’s rules state that it does “not tolerate” content “that degrades someone.” President Trump violates this rule as well on a regular bases.
What should we do about the lies and hate that are regularly posted on the Internet? I agree with Kimberly Ross who said that: “It is imperative that we don’t view those like Alex Jones, who peddle in fear-mongering and lies, as harmless. In fact, we should actively call out such appalling behavior…. We should never wait around for the Left to come in and clean up our side. We should do that ourselves. Individuals like Jones who manufacture outrage and spread falsehoods should find that the market on the Right for their wares is minuscule.” Dont-defend-Alex-Jones-but-dont-let-the-government-get-into-censorship-either
Several important policy issues arise from this. We should challenge what we believe to be lies and hatred ourselves. Our First Amendment protection of free speech rightly prevents the government from deciding what is true and what is hateful and banning it. Few of us would be happy letting Stephen Miller, a nasty minded White House Adviser, determine what could be posted on Facebook about American experience with immigrants. Jonathan Rauch has updated his wonderful book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought,in which he argues that the best defense against fake news and hateful speech is to exercise our free speech to challenge it. Kindly-Inquisitors-Attacks-Free-Thought. See also his short essay on this subject: “Who-will-regulate-hate-speech”.
Facebook and Twitter are private companies and should be free to set whatever policies for access that they want. On the other hand they come close to being public utilities like telephone companies and Internet access providers who should not be allow to block access to the Alex Joneses of the world because they lie and spread hate. This deserves further thought.
Turning to government to protect us from every unpleasantry we might encounter weakens us and takes us in the wrong direction. Those who defend protecting us from hate speech with “safe zones” and “trigger warnings” reflect a paternalistic attitude toward the responsibilities of our government and of ourselves as citizens of a free society. Like the well-meaning, but ultimately harmful, helicopter moms, we risk creating a society of wimps dependent on government for far more than is healthy for a free society. Part of our training as we grow up and encounter a sometimes nasty world should be to stand up and challenge falsehood and hate when we encounter it. Safe zones deprive us of such training. It’s our job to counter lies and hate, not the government’s.