Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Banning of Alex Jones: Facebook Choice or Regulatory Extortion?

Facebook banned Alex Jones from its platform for posting “hate speech” and “bullying.” The Associated Press reports:

Major tech companies have begun to ban right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from their services, reflecting a more aggressive enforcement of policies against hate speech following protests on social media.

Facebook has taken down four pages belonging to Jones, including two featuring his “Infowars” show, for violating its hate speech and bullying policies. Over the past several days, Apple, YouTube and Spotify have also removed material published by Jones. Twitter, which hasn’t banned Jones, has also faced similar calls.

The question is, are these companies truly doing this on their own, as a matter of principle, business policy, or market pressure? Or are they being coerced by political threats of regulation?

If the first, then it is their right, even if dumb. And it is dumb, if done on principle. You can’t defeat ideas you consider bad except by exposure by letting those holding those views express themselves. They can only be defeated by intellectually discrediting, and then by countering with a better viewpoint. What better place to expose and open to refutation bad ideas than on social media? They, after all, the media, not Starbucks. Prohibition does not work. It didn’t work with alcohol. It doesn’t work with the “War on Drugs.” And it won’t and never has worked with ideas. Truth-seeking is about exposing and debating, not burying and retreating into an “echo chamber.” This view gets support from a surprising source, Former President Barack Obama. Obama said it is wrong to silence “people who are different than us.” We should instead listen to them “because we should try to understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, maybe they'll change ours. You can't do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponent has to say from the start.”

The effect of the ban is actually to have the opposite effect: to elevate what is said in importance. Bans only make martyrs of the silenced, drawing more attention to them and widening their reach. It’s interesting that until I read about Facebook’s ban of Alex Jones, I had never heard of Alex Jones. Now, I’m investigating his views to see what the hoopla is all about, so I can judge for myself. News of Facebook’s ban is actually helping to expose more people to Jone’s ideas, even as it makes them less exposed. Censorship doesn’t do anything but drive ideas underground, where they continue to spread but with much less public scrutiny. And by cutting Jones out of Facebook, Facebook is denying intelligent opponents the chance to use their own free speech to challenge and refute the ideas--all for the sake of people who lack the courage or ability to fight back on the “battleground” of ideas.

If the second, it gets much worse: We’re dealing with outright government censorship. The First Amendment protects the likes of private entities like Facebook to ban points of view it doesn't approve of. The First Amendment doesn’t give us the “right” to broadcast at others’ expense. It does protect us from forcible government censorship or jailing for speaking our minds. But what if politics intersects with the private sector? Politicians have been threatening these companies, saying “Either you control your content, or we will.” Jesse Walker for Reason looks back at the McCarthy era of Communist blacklisting by targeting Hollywood, and draws parallels to today:

In the Trump era, the target of choice for people worried about foreign subversion—and other disfavored speech, from "fake news" to sex ads—is social media. "You created these platforms, and now they're being misused," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) told representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter during last year's hearings on Russian activities during the 2016 election. "And you have to be the ones who do something about it—or we will."

As tech companies create ever-more-intrusive rules about what can and can't be said using their products, threats like Feinstein's clearly play a substantial role in their decision making. [My emphasis]

Whether through direct regulation, or the back door of threats of regulation, we’re dealing with another assault on free speech and press, in direct violation of the inalienable individual right to intellectual freedom and expression and conscientious objection as explicitly guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Facebook and the other companies appear to be caving in to political pressure. If so, they are aiding and abetting the advance of dictatorship in America. Aspiring dictators need to suppress dissent and control the intellectual narrative. They have found a powerful weapon in the internet and social media companies. First, they tried to control the internet through “net neutrality” regulatory control of internet service providers (stymied by Trump, for now). The logical next step is to control the internet content providers. The statists, mostly on the Left, must be exposed. It is these statists, not the Alex Jones of the world, who are the real threat. They must be stopped. As Walker implores:

Anyone who cares about free expression should object to censorship by proxy, both as it manifested itself in the early days of the Cold War and as it threatens to re-emerge in social media today.

Related Reading:

The Life and Death of a Hollywood Blacklist: Sometimes censorship is a public-private partnership, by Jesse Walker for Reason.

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