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October 15th, 2018

Insight

Don't Ban Alex Jones

Rich Lowry

By Rich Lowry

Published August 10, 2018

Don't Ban Alex Jones

It's just gotten a little easier for the government to control the weather.


Social media sites moved en masse to ban Alex Jones, the self-parodic conspiracy theorist, from their platforms. Jones is a poisonous toad who leveraged his compellingly ridiculous persona and bizarre rants into considerable notoriety and a lucrative dietary-supplement empire.


Alex Jones doesn't represent anything new in this country. We've always had our share of paranoid crackpots. Before the age of social media, they relied on publishing underground newsletters and handing out leaflets and the like to get their message out.


What Jones has done is take a cracked worldview that long pre-dated him — lunatic theories about the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg group and the Illuminati have been a fringe staple for decades — and shrewdly marketed it using technologies that afford him a reach unimaginable to his daft forbears.


This is a significant downside of the new media environment, which is more open and has fewer guardrails than ever before. But banning Jones, especially in the manner it was done, has significant ramifications for free speech. It signals that social-media companies are going down a path that won't stop at shutting down a figure everyone can agree is bonkers and despicable.


Of course, the social-media companies aren't government entities. They can silence whomever they like without violating the First Amendment. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea.


The power of social-media platforms is enormous. They are, for all intents and purposes, the public square. Facebook affects the fate of publishers with every change to its algorithms, and has demonstrated again and again the ability to make media entities march to its beat.


This suggests that these companies have a responsibility, in keeping with their outsize role in the public debate, to give the widest possible latitude to free speech. They certainly shouldn't make sweeping decisions, like the swift, collective action against Jones, in an arbitrary manner.


Everyone has known about Jones for years. It can't be that suddenly, after propagating stupid lies for a couple of decades, he was discovered to be grossly violating the guidelines of almost every important social-media platform at exactly the same moment.


It was just a few weeks ago that Mark Zuckerberg was explaining in an interview that he didn't want to take down Holocaust deniers because he didn't want to put himself in the position as an arbiter of truth. There's no way to square that sentiment and the defenestration of Alex Jones.


What happened? The reaction against Zuckerberg's interview was harsh, and the pressure to move against Jones intense. So this was clearly, at least in part, a political decision by the social-media companies moving as a herd. That's a problem, especially when the rules are fuzzy and subject to selective enforcement.


The rationale for the ban against Jones is that he was guilty of hate speech, or, as Facebook put it, using "dehumanizing language." Since there is considerable sentiment on the left for the proposition that using disfavored pronouns for transgender people is dehumanizing, and an undeservedly well-respected outfit, the Southern Poverty Law Center, has a mission of labeling conservative organizations "hate groups," the possibility of a slippery slope here is real and disturbing.


If social-media platforms are going to be more discriminating in the content they permit, it will require great care and a much more transparent, less subjective standard. A clear line would be the one that Zuckerberg enunciated in his controversial interview, which is to act to stop incitement, but otherwise allow users to post as they see fit.


My colleague David French suggests another bright line: banning users who are guilty of libel, which has never been protected by the First Amendment. This standard might bounce Jones for his monstrous lie about Sandy Hook families having faked the massacre of their children.


The lonely dissenter to the social-media moves against Jones is Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who stipulated that Jones didn't violate the rules of his platform. He said that it's important to stand by straightforward principles, impartially enforced, lest "we become a service that's constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction."


For this, he is getting eviscerated. Dorsey's other offense is saying that journalists should refute the likes of Jones "so people can form their own opinions." This is what used to be a liberal chestnut, that the best way to combat speech is with other speech.


It is now considered a hateful, retrograde point of view. An illiberal wind is blowing. We won't miss Alex Jones when he's gone, but the banning almost certainly won't end with him.

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