BY JOSEPH HOLT
It was widely reported Monday that Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify removed content from right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars network from their platforms.
Jones peddled the bizarre theories that the tragic shootings in 2012 at Sandy Hook were a hoax, and that Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff ran a child-sex ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington. He is a morally repugnant windbag and I don’t want to listen to him. But I do want to live in a country where he can spout his nonsense and be seen and dismissed for the detestable jackass he is.
Private tech companies are certainly free to set the terms of their user agreements, but they should err in the direction of inclusivity when doing so — as Twitter has done in keeping Jones’ account live for now.
Removing Jones’ content from big tech platforms lends credibility to his narrative about a left-wing conspiracy to silence him and other conservatives. The Infowars homepage Monday offered the following dire warning: “The war on your mind is in full swing as globalists remove outlets of liberty and truth, starting with the tip of the spear: Alex Jones.”
And Donald Trump Jr. tweeted Tuesday, “How long before Big Tech and their Democrat friends move to censor and purge @BreitbartNews, @DailyCaller and other conservative voices from their platforms?”
It is better to allow Jones to make a fool of himself than to make him a free speech martyr.
Furthermore, there is the risk of banning Jones and then falling further down the slippery slope of censorship. Once private censorship by tech giants begins, where will it end? I find much of what conservative radio host Mark Levin has to say needlessly hateful, divisive and offensive — ditto for Samantha Bee at times. But I don’t want them removed from social media.
The censorship danger is great because big tech companies have unprecedented power to control the distribution of information in society, and they respond quickly to public pressure. Vox reported Monday that the bans came “after mounting public backlash against Infowars’ pernicious rhetoric.” We won’t have a free and robust marketplace of ideas if those who control the flow of information silence whoever they are pressured to silence whenever they are pressured to do so.
Banning Jones and his ilk from major social platforms could also ultimately drive them underground where it would be harder to track the mischief they are up to. It is a safe bet that Jones will spout conspiratorial nonsense so long as he breathes. I would rather him do it openly than in the dark recesses of the web removed from any scrutiny whatsoever.
Banning Jones also will not solve the problems of hate speech or false information. Devotees of Jones are still free to post videos from his website to their Facebook pages and to YouTube. And as The New York Times reports, there are hundreds of smaller outlets promoting similar conspiratorial nonsense with millions of followers reposting the content.
Finally, we are all big boys and girls and can decide for ourselves whom to listen to. We should have the confidence in our discretion that President John Kennedy praised in a speech in 1962:
“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
Big tech companies should do a more effective job than they have to check Russian interference in our elections. They also should remove any particular content that incites violence, such as Jones’ rant in July, livestreamed on his Facebook page, accusing special counsel Robert Mueller of covering up child rape and then pantomiming shooting Mueller.
I appreciate the moral stance of the tech companies against hate speech and the glorification of violence. And I appreciate the desire Apple conveyed Sunday in a statement to Buzzfeed News to “provide a safe environment for all of our users.” But a social environment in which there is censorship whenever there is public pressure for it is not a safe environment for all of our citizens.
Apple, in its statement to Buzzfeed, said, “We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions.” But if big tech companies kick off everyone who is sometimes disrespectful of those who hold opposing views from their platforms, how many would remain?
Communications technology has changed a great deal since Benjamin Franklin was publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, but the principle underlying his apology in 1731 to those who were angry with him “on the Account of printing things they don’t like” remains valid: “That if all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”
Joseph Holt is an ethics professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. His column was published in the Chicago Tribune.