With the news that Apple, Spotify, Facebook, and YouTube have shut down accounts associated with Alex Jones’s Infowars program, right-wing complaints about the tech industry’s supposed “war” on conservatives’ free speech rights are certain to intensify.
Jones is trying to portray himself as some kind of free-speech martyr. For example, after Right Wing Watch’s Jared Holt pointed out that Spotify was streaming Infowars’s podcasts in violation of the company’s stated policies, generating widespread criticism, Jones declared that he was in “a war for your First Amendment.”
So let’s clarify a few things.
Freedom of speech is indeed a cherished freedom and fundamental constitutional right. The First Amendment’s free speech protections, while not absolute, do protect the right of people to say even stupid and offensive things. But the First Amendment’s protections against government censorship do not mean that every speaker has a right to make themselves heard in every forum, or that people have a right to be free of the consequences of their speech. And they certainly don’t mean that tech companies are required to give a platform to the garbage reliably spewed on Infowars.
Alex Jones and Infowars traffic in irresponsible conspiracy theories and outright lies that poison our political discourse. By encouraging his viewers to embrace destructive falsehoods, Jones makes reality-based political debate less possible, and less likely to be constructive.
Social media companies don’t have an obligation to provide a platform for that kind of content, or for online bullying. When Breitbart’s bad boy Milo Yiannopoulos was thrown off Twitter in 2016, it wasn’t because the company wanted to silence conservative viewpoints, it was because the company apparently determined that he had violated user rules and encouraged his followers to wage a campaign of racist harassment targeting actress Leslie Jones. Freewheeling political speech on Twitter has survived without him.
As for Jones, he has repeatedly promoted conspiracy theories about the brutal mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, suggesting that it was a hoax and calling grieving parents liars. Jones is being sued by the families of some murdered students and teachers, and by an FBI agent who responded to the shooting. The New York Times reported in July about the death threats and relentless online harassment experienced by a couple whose six-year-old son was killed at Sandy Hook.
Not surprisingly, President Donald Trump is a big Alex Jones fan. The Times described Jones as “an avatar for a ‘post truth’ ethos that flourished online during the last presidential campaign,” during which Trump appeared on Infowars and praised Jones’s “amazing” reputation.
Polls conducted in the last couple of years show that most Americans are committed to freedom of speech—including offensive speech. This year, a survey of college students led by the Knight Foundation and Gallup found students living with some tension between their strong support for both free expression and inclusion, but preferring a learning environment that is open and permits offensive speech over one that is positive but limits it. Surveys find significant differences along gender, racial, and political lines about what kind of limits people think are acceptable.
So there are important conversations to be had about the importance of free speech and the role that media companies play in facilitating it.
There are good reasons for social media companies to evaluate and restrain the misuse and abuse of their powerful platforms, especially in the wake of their documented use by Russian actors to spread disinformation during the 2016 election.
And it’s more than reasonable for people, liberals and conservatives alike, to feel some squeamishness about the power that big social media firms have acquired, and for users and policymakers to be vigilant about how that power is used. But we don’t really need to lose any sleep over Alex Jones having to work a little harder to find an audience for his toxic hucksterism.