One of the most frequent topics of social debate has always been the issue of free speech, and this whole Alex Jones problem has really raised a handful of interesting questions. Looking at much of the online discussion surrounding the termination of Jones’ presence on social media platforms like Facebook, Apple, and YouTube, it’s time to address a few things.
First of all, what is free speech? Because we toss the term around so much, the two different meanings of the phrase tend to be conflated. There is both the legal definition as it applies to the US constitution, and then the basic principle. The former guarantees through the First Amendment that the federal government cannot (in most cases) dictate what we say, ensuring our ability to criticize said government without being imprisoned or shot. The latter is an Enlightenment value which encourages tolerance for different thoughts and modes of expression. The law is rooted in the principle; however, as a belief, free speech is abstract and difficult to enforce, hence why the First Amendment simply protects us from the government. By taking the government out of the issue of free speech, it’s left in the hands of society, and therefore the question of tolerance is at the whim of personal preferences and changing social mores about what is acceptable.
The First Amendment does not guarantee a platform, nor does it promise freedom from consequences. In the most utopian conception of free speech, society would be so tolerant that any type of expression would be accepted and understood as just one drop in the ocean of ideas. However, the real world is imperfect and impacted by issues of social power, so free speech at the societal level will always be an issue whose limits expand and contract.
Take the 1950s. We had freedom of speech then. But if someone like Rob Zombie went back in time and tried to make House of 1000 Corpses with a film studio, no one would have let him. The movie would have been considered disgusting and obscene, and therefore denied anything like funding or distribution. But his right to free speech, as legally defined, would not have been infringed upon. A platform would simply be unavailable due to society’s incredibly conservative nature at the time.
Now, had he made the movie and it was later pulled by federal or local government due to their insisting that a film like this can’t be shown, then there is an argument about obscenity and whether Zombie’s work is protected by the First Amendment. Conversely, if his movie is picketed by protestors who want to speak out against something they consider filth, it’s their First Amendment right to assemble and say they don’t approve the film being shown in their community. It’s a cultural argument, and the legal issue of free speech dictates how much the government can get involved in that discussion. Otherwise, the government could control exactly what forms of expression it did or did not approve.
Today, these concerns are highlighted in things like the many social protests happening across the country, speakers being forced out of gigs on college campuses, calls to get TV shows cancelled, the government openly threatening the news media, businesses denying services to certain customers, sports players refusing to kneel for the National Anthem, and yes, Alex Jones having his platform taken away by corporate bodies who’ve decided to no longer give him an avenue of expression. The issues raised here impact both definitions of free speech, especially the philosophical definition. (They also at times overlap with other First Amendment rights such as freedom of the press and of religion, complicating matters).
But these incidents are not the same exact thing, either. This is not all happening on a level field. A business owner denying someone service because of race, religion, or any other factor that is a protected class is not just expressing a personal business decision, they are in many cases violating a law (in addition to just being a shitty person, of course). With players kneeling, it’s true the organizations they work for are private and can thusly implement rules about the National Anthem, but at the same time there are First Amendment questions swirling around the legality of forcing someone to participate in a political ritual which they personally oppose, particularly when the President attempts to influence the situation. (It’s a similar argument to atheists refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance due to its reference to God).
With Alex Jones, it’s important to note that he and InfoWars were not banned from these outlets because of their promotion of disagreeable and controversial material, but for violating company policies about hate speech and encouragement of violence. It may come as a shock that a social media company can shut any of us down for a million different reasons if they feel like it, but there you go. Thankfully, many of them opt for open policies that encourage people to use their services and allow for a wide variety of expression, but virtually every social media platform has rules about hateful and violent speech. (Hence why forums such as 4chan and 8chan become breeding grounds for offensive content, as there are few rules or repercussions). These are not fairly applied in many cases, with a disproportionate number of women, trans persons, and people of color getting banned or blocked, but nevertheless these are enforceable policies which exist for a reason.
Alex Jones was banned for breaking these rules, not merely for transgressive speech. He has cultivated an audience which literally believes his demonstrably fake claims, and which has become increasingly infiltrated by white supremacist and alt-right factions who turn his comment sections into derogatory exchanges flailing with misogyny and racism. He may be a ridiculous snake-oil salesman whose own lawyer claims is just a performance artist, but Jones himself has denied those assertions and also gives no indication that he wants his audience to be skeptical of him. This has created an environment where he can say the Sandy Hook massacre was a false flag operation, and then the parents of murdered children find themselves harassed and threatened by members of his audience.
Is Jones 100% responsible for people being so stupid that they actually believe him? No. His audience bears responsibility as well. But again, he blurs the line between simply raising ridiculous observations and actually encouraging violence, and a company has every right to burn that bridge if they do not want to help promote views which may result in such.
Ironically, many conservative organizations promote privatization and yet object to private companies like Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, etc. banning Jones, treating those platforms almost as social services to which we’re all entitled. They assume this is a political move, a viewpoint which Jones is currently encouraging. Yet if these companies wanted to deny Jones a platform merely for disagreeing with his politics or offensive statements, he would have lost these avenues long ago. It is, again, his tilling of an audience base not only rabidly toxic but brimming with the surge of paranoid bigotry currently sweeping through the culture.
Of all things, WikiLeaks has come to the defense of InfoWars, calling it an occasionally absurd outlet that nevertheless acts as a news source which can question the state. This is a dubious assertion to say the least. As mentioned before, Jones makes provably false assertions, and currently his “questioning of the state” involves shilling for Donald Trump, the literal head of the state. WikiLeaks’ opinion that Jones is being silenced by pro-censorship corporate culture attempting to stamp out a rival is also questionable, as again, these companies gave Jones a platform for many years where he was able to say and do virtually anything. He had been made aware numerous times when he violated their hate speech policies and could have issued correctives to stay within their guidelines, but chose otherwise.
And the labeling of Facebook as a rival news source for InfoWars makes no sense either, as Facebook acts as an aggregate of news, and InfoWars is an independent actor using their services. Facebook is only a news outlet inasmuch as it relies on third party organizations for content to distribute through its algorithm. With the current attempt by platforms to filter out fake news and hate speech, two forms of expression which have been weaponized as propaganda, it makes sense for Facebook to pay extra attention to something like InfoWars, whose bread and butter is fake news.
There is always the argument that hate speech, which is currently constitutionally protected, has a place in the pantheon of tolerated expression. At the moment, given the emergence of movements like Antifa and other resistance groups in response to the rise of white nationalism, this is a highly contentious statement. Many insights have been shared about the dangers of tolerating intolerance; why sit back and allow a cancer to fester instead of stopping it from spreading? But even people such as Noam Chomsky, one of the foremost intellectuals specializing in dismantling oppressive systems of power, have eloquently argued that, up to a certain point, hate speech has its function. After all, it’s just an abstract concept and difficult to define until we can actually see it and hear it, and since it’s protected speech, we can use our own protected speech to speak out against it.
At the very least, Chomsky is right in the idea that if we are going to have socially determined free speech, at some point it is intellectually necessary to challenge yourself by defending speech you find abhorrent or otherwise disagreeable, otherwise free speech simply applies to what you like and has no actual meaning.
But that doesn’t necessarily entail that all forms of disagreeable speech should be defended under all circumstances in all climes. Hate speech, being the most disagreeable, carries with it an implied threat, which is why other countries with generally tolerant and progressive free speech laws have legislation against it. Since the United States does not have a federal position restricting hate speech at this time, it forces companies and civilians to deal or not deal with it when encountered. Henceforth, Facebook and Apple can drop InfoWars just as your job can fire you for shouting racial expletives. (States and municipalities are permitted to pass hate speech laws, but these laws are difficult to enforce as they can easily run afoul of the First Amendment).
In this situation, Alex Jones has no #1A case to make. His First Amendment rights have not been violated; the government did not take away his right to speak, and he still has his own websites to stream his content and deliver to those who want it. Even if Jones had his platform removed by a government or law enforcement body, there’s a chance his objection would be dismissed. While difficult to prove, the First Amendment does not protect speech that puts people in immediate danger or encourages the imminent breaking of a law, and some interpretations of Jones’ manner of expression may in fact fall along those lines (though it might not be imminent enough for his speech to be unprotected).
Experiencing consequences for repugnant speech is not a violation of the First Amendment. And Chomsky would likely acknowledge the dangerous shift in the political climate, where hate speech is not just a fringe or heretical view but the language of an emboldened and increasingly violent political dynamic. In the current atmosphere, speech just like what Jones espouses potentially endangers the lives and well-being of others, imminent or no. While hate speech is theoretically always threatening, now there is an emergent mechanism for it to become action. Companies are within their right to challenge or deny this speech as it represents a growing cultural problem.
Is this always fair? No. The public discourse about free speech will never reach the utopian ideal of its principle. Free speech, despite the “free” aspect, is not a limitless prospect. There is not, and never will be, a perfect society where all speech is allowed and never does damage or faces consequences. For sometimes better and sometimes worse, speech will always be tested, restricted, and occasionally barred. Despite even the best efforts, there’s no system of measurement to ensure that standards for speech are always equally applied. And it is worth noting that the same method of online harassment used by the followers of Jones is employed by people across the political spectrum . . . anything you do online can potentially field a cavalcade of reactions you’d rather not hear, and can very easily cross into something vile and threatening. That’s not an issue that either corporations or governments can blanketly solve.
It’s also true that our culture risks slipping into a position, at least for a time, of punitive hyper-scrutiny of all modes of expression to parse them for any hint of problematic elements, intentional or no. This type of reactionary attitude would indeed be stifling to the concept of societal free speech, returning to a 50s-era climate of restrictive policing of expression. Making people afraid to say what they’re thinking is ultimately not conducive to progress, even if in the short term it can help neutralize noxious elements within the culture. At worst, it leads to an environment which forcefully attempts to purge unpopular opinions by rendering free speech a merely nominal concept, a viewpoint Jones has latched onto in order to bolster his victim status, with his claims that the banning of InfoWars proves above all that the evil communist left conspires to silence truthtellers.
Predictably, many of Jones’ ilk like to use the occasionally authoritarian views of certain left-wing circles as proof of their own oppression, which creates a feedback loop of righteous indignation where they can cry censorship — which is sometimes true, as the far-left can lean towards censoriousness, but usually not accurate — and then less-existent concepts such as “reverse racism”, misandry, and white genocide, even though none of those things have any form of institutionalized, systemic support in our society whatsoever. (And in the case of white extermination, is happening purely in the imaginations of white people).
They also lose sight of the fact that protestors are the perfect example of both legal and social free speech in action, an irony also lost on some activists themselves. The attempt by orgs like InfoWars to discredit Democrats, liberals, the left, and the far-left as a whole (even though those descriptions cover a tremendous swath of differing political, economic, and moral stances) ignores the fact that leftism currently does not have a place on the main stage of American politics, whereas the hardline right through the far-right hogs the mainstream spotlight in many arenas. No doubt there are free speech questions raised by the left, but it is the right which currently wields the social capital. Of course, this push and pull where the principle of free speech is sometimes the sacrificial lamb is nothing new. Both conservatives and progressives take turns being guilty, though it’s often an inevitable part of the chaotic cycle of cultural evolution as codes of conduct and acceptability change.
It’s under these circumstances that people have turned to social protest as the way to combat hate speech, since it falls upon the shoulders of society to push back against such speech, if anyone is going to do so. Certainly, there have been times when protest has proven counterproductive by ultimately giving attention to hate groups — providing oxygen to a spark that might otherwise have snuffed itself out with little fanfare — and in the process reinforcing those groups’ narratives of persecution, as well as the broader social narrative that it is in fact the protesters who are the only aggressors.
Yet it is almost impossible to predict those circumstances, and the current rise of white power groups in alarming numbers simply does not allow for passivity. (Note that the word there is passivity, not pacifism. Different discussion). Exercising free speech by way of protest is currently the best solution for the civil dimension to deal with this dilemma. As private companies are often expected to accept some level of social responsibility, there is a reasonably strong argument to be made that Facebook et al are merely doing their part in not propagating speech rendered indefensible in a time of peril.
There may come a day when hate speech is legally banned, but such sweeping legislation has its own risks. One reason such laws have yet to pass is, interestingly enough, that they could limit the ability of minorities and oppressed groups to speak out against oppression. Though isolated cases exist where this limitation might be appropriate — for instance, the New Black Panther Party, disowned by the original Black Panthers, is rightfully categorized as a hate group — the damage overall could be severe. Any confrontational language could potentially be construed as hate speech by authorities and shut down, which would not be doing important activist groups like Black Lives Matter any favors. (And as mentioned above, we already see enough instances where privileged people claim oppression simply for being exposed to criticism). Even general social exchanges could be challenged; do we really want a situation where the law punishes black people for saying the n-word?
Intent is also a tricky thing. If the use of certain images and symbols were made criminal, what would happen to movies like The Producers, or musicians who appropriate fascist imagery to criticize the government via irony and satire? What about the fact that the swastika is a religious symbol found in Buddhism and Hinduism? Broad declarations can create many First Amendment issues, so the wording would have to be specific enough to cover distinctions such as religious freedom, as well as intention, context, and ambiguity. It absolutely can be done, but given the current societal drift towards white power sympathizing, the regulation of hate speech is likely far in the future.
As for Alex Jones, if he really is the limit-testing performance artist his lawyer insists he is, then he obviously found the limit. Ideally, we wouldn’t want corporations making free speech decisions for us — just as ideally no one would believe anything Alex Jones says — but in this instance it does not seem to be a case of either abuse or overreach. But is Jones at heart a Sacha Baron Cohen-esque parody of a raging conspiracy theorist, as some claim? If so, he has done nothing to delineate that he’s playing a character. Cohen’s trolling is intended to make a satirical point. Jones meanwhile has no end goal; he’s happy for people to take him seriously and he courts that attention, amassing a following of believers. That is not a performance artist; it’s a cult leader.
Jones has decried the shutting down of InfoWars on internet platforms as an attempt to prevent the public from receiving news unfiltered by the interests of what he considers to be the liberal elite media. However, he does not provide news. He literally lies, parading made-up stories and unverified rumors and paranoid ramblings as fact. It’d be no different from me insisting that the truth has been silenced because The Washington Post refuses to carry my column The Goblin Report. His deliberate use of white nationalist rhetoric was bound to immolate his podium at some juncture, when those companies providing him an outlet would finally draw a line and state that enough was enough.
If Alex Jones is so concerned about the state of free speech and factual journalism, he has nothing to worry about.
His removal impacts neither.