It is the oldest cliché in free speech circles that “you cannot shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” In other words, there are limits to free speech – even under the First Amendment.
In the theater analogy, it’s the risk of causing harm, not directly, but via the panic that your statement could cause. Similar rules can apply for speech inciting violence or hatred against particular groups.
By that standard, Alex Jones and his Infowars outlet make terrible free speech champions. They have made their careers by doing the online equivalent of screaming “fire” on a daily basis.
They are 9/11 truthers; fueled the Pizzagate conspiracy, which led to an automatic weapon being discharged in a Washington restaurant; have suggested Sandy Hook was a “false flag” operation; incited harassment against parents of crime victims; and have done far more.
But it’s not the US government that’s acted against Infowars and Jones; it’s most of the largest tech companies in the US. Jones and Infowars have now been removed from YouTube, Spotify, Facebook and Apple – all within hours of each other.
There is no automatic right to have your content hosted by any tech giant. They are private companies and thus entirely legally able to decide the limits of content and speech available on their networks, provided it complies with the law.
However, for all that this is the legal argument – and it’s a sound one – in practical terms, if you get knocked off the platforms of the tech giants in such a way, you have very little chance of building an audience.
A small group of companies has gained such dominance of how content providers can reach new audiences and disseminate content on the internet that, in practical terms, they become all but unavoidable.
If a government (other than the US) censors you, you have plenty of other countries where you can try to spread your message. If it’s Facebook and its fellow tech companies, you don’t.
Companies with such power shouldn’t exist.
Alex Jones should not be anyone’s free speech martyr – his content is self-serving (his conspiratorial rants are used to sell overpriced supplements to preppers) and dangerous. But his banning does reveal the extent to which we have concentrated power on the internet.
The most significant part of Jones’ story is the way in which he and Infowars was banned. For years, people have been trying to hold the tech companies to account for dangerous misinformation, hate speech and abuse on their networks. And in response, we constantly hear that the issues are complex and the companies have extensive procedures in place for how they tackle such issues.
The manner in which Infowars has disappeared from almost all the major networks – at the time of writing, Twitter is the last major outlet still yet to ban it – takes anyone who’s said or swallowed that line as a sucker.
The tech giants either want us to believe in astronomical coincidences about when they take their action, or they don’t care that their protestations about how they implement their guidelines ring hollow.
Most people could now reasonably deduce that, provided they can keep their conduct out of the headlines, they may well be able to get away with what they’re doing.
In this, perhaps, the companies have publicly blundered. They have shown us they can act, and they have shown us that bad headlines and public pressure is the trigger.
But they’ve also shown us their guidelines – as they stand – seem more of a crutch and an excuse than a real barrier to action.
This is a marker: We can hold them to higher standards, and we should make them live up to those all the time – not just when the headlines are bad.