Google (which owns Youtube), Apple and Facebook have all banned Alex Jones to one degree or another. My initial reaction was to be happy about that. But now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m not sure it’s a good thing. At the very least, I think we need to recognize the potential dangers inherent in such policies.
I certainly shouldn’t have to establish my bona fides in despising Alex Jones. I’ve written about him — against him — for many, many years. I consider him hateful, vile and dangerous. So this has nothing at all to do with defending him or any of the horrifying things he says. Nor am I arguing that those companies don’t have the legal right to do what they did. It’s not a First Amendment issue because the First Amendment only restricts government action, not private action. They are fully within their legal rights. And if Jones disappeared from the planet tomorrow, I’d be very happy about that. But let’s also be realistic about the situation.
When you say that you want companies like Google, Apple and Facebook — three of the largest, most powerful and most influential companies in the world, and they control access to an immense amount of information — to deny a platform to Jones and others like him, you are saying — must be saying — that you want such decisions made by Silicon Valley billionaires, mostly in response to public pressure. And in an age of media consolidation, we need to at least acknowledge that there is some danger in that position.
Look at what is already happening with Sinclair Media, which has bought up a sizable percentage of the local TV stations around the country and is imposing its own editorial agenda on the local news operations. When Facebook makes a big decision like this, it isn’t just a routine decision to give someone a timeout for posting something bad (or, often, not bad at all) made by some low-level nobody. They didn’t do this without lots of discussion among the higher-ups at the company, perhaps even including Mark Zuckerberg directly. They knew the controversy they were stepping into and they didn’t make this decision lightly.How easy would it be for that same decision to be made about a content creator we might like? We like to think that if we give that kind of power to people in such a position, we’ll win all the battles; that’s clearly naive and false. And with conservative billionaires buying up media outlets left and right, we could very easily find ourselves on the losing end rather than the winning one. And if we’re talking about a company like Google or Facebook, we’re talking about the two companies that absolutely dominate social media and the flow of information online. That should at least give us some pause, shouldn’t it?
Ultimately, while the legal situation is different, the logic of the argument is the same one against government restrictions and censorship. When you say you want the government to censor the expression of hateful speech, what you’re really saying, whether you recognize it or not, is that you want the Trump administration to decide which speech is hateful and thus deserving of censorship. Because our side isn’t always going to be in power, obviously. The same logic applies to private corporations. Do you want a billionaire oligarch whose first priority is to protect their wealth making such decisions? If so, at least recognize that we are as likely to be the targets as the beneficiaries of those decisions.
I’m not suggesting a solution here. As I said, they have the legal right to do what they did. And there’s still a big part of me that is very happy to see Jones get confined to the fringe where he belongs. But I think there is a legitimate fear that we could find ourselves out there on the fringe with him when we allow — even demand — the deplatforming of those we deem hateful (and if Jones isn’t hateful, no one is), we could find our own platform yanked out from under us as well.