Progressives calling on social media platforms to ban Alex Jones, the conspiracy theory-peddling host of “Infowars,” should be careful what they wish for, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Several companies, including Facebook and YouTube, have removed Jones and his radio show for violating their hate speech policies. But doing so may set a dangerous precedent, according to Ben Wizner, director of ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
As private institutions, these sites have the constitutional right to decide whether to host Jones. But a hate speech policy defining when an individual warrants being banned could be “misused and abused,” Wizner told HuffPost on Monday.
“If [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions, for example, were deciding what’s hate speech, he would be less likely to think KKK and more likely to think [Black Lives Matter],” Wizner said. “It turns out to be an extremely subjective term.”
“I have some of the same concerns about platforms making those decisions,” he added. “Governments at least purport to be acting solely in the public interest, but platforms are making these decisions based on what’s in their financial interest. So their interest might be in avoiding controversy, but do we want the most important speech platforms in the world to avoid controversy?”
Some critics of Jones would say yes, in certain circumstances.
“Jones is not the hill any free speech advocate should want to die on,” Anoa Changa, an activist and attorney in Atlanta, wrote in an opinion piece for HuffPost earlier this month.
In her piece, Changa argued that free speech absolutists protesting the banning of Jones fail to consider that speech is “not supported equally across all topics and platforms for everyone.”
“The protests over Jones’ banning aren’t about freedom of speech and making sure everyone has a say,” she wrote. “This is about maintaining and sustaining white supremacy and power. This is about Jones and his ability to earn ridiculous amounts of money peddling falsehoods, inflaming hatred and selling junk. There is no absolute right to be a hateful grifter without accountability.”
But there are ways to combat hate speech that aren’t as “worrisome” as banning a person from a platform, Wizner said. For instance, a site could remove individual posts that violate its terms of service or deprioritize their placement.
“From a free expression standpoint, you would say if these platforms want to minimize the impact of the offending speech, it’s preferable to do so in a way that falls short of complete censorship,” Wizner said.
Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify have given Jones and “Infowars” the boot, but Twitter has imposed much less severe restrictions on the icon of the so-called alt-right.
“Progressives are being short-sighted if they think more censorship authority won’t come back to bite them.”
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced backlash earlier this month for suspending Jones from the platform for seven days instead of kicking him off completely when he violated the platform’s rules against inciting violence. The move prompted criticism over Twitter’s seemingly haphazard approach to enforcing its own terms of service.
Some activists argue Jones should be banned from platforms for spreading misinformation that poses a risk to the functionality of democracy in the U.S. But Dorsey, who has described Twitter as “left-leaning,” argued during a CNN interview on Saturday that his company shouldn’t be the “arbiters of truth.”
Wizner told HuffPost he’s “sympathetic” to that view.
“Who should decide what’s fake? ... It’s not so easy to do in a way that is objective,” he said. “If these platforms get in the business of trying to be the arbiters of truth or falsity, pretty soon everyone is going to have something to complain about.”
“Do we really want corporations that are answerable to their shareholders and their bottom lines being the ones who decide which political speech Americans should see or not see?” he added. “Because that’s what we’re asking for here.”
In the more than 18 months since President Donald Trump assumed office, the ACLU has seen its membership soar. Many people look toward the organization as a progressive beacon that’s willing to fight the Trump administration, no matter the cause.
But some new members may be unaware of the ACLU’s “historical role as the defenders of free speech ― even of people whose speech we despise,” Wizner said. He pointed to the backlash his organization faced for defending white nationalists’ right to hold a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer. The gathering turned deadly when one rallygoer rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
“We’ve always been suspicious of vesting power in authorities to decide what speech is good for us,” Wizner said. “We’ve always had confidence that in the messy raucous marketplace of speech that the best ideas will ultimately prevail.”
“If you look at one year after Charlottesville, the alt-right is diminished and marginalized because of so much successful and courageous counter-speech against them,” he added. “Whether the censor is [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Sessions, progressives are being short-sighted if they think more censorship authority won’t come back to bite them.”