The scandal is not that social media heavyweights are silencing Alex Jones, but that they ever gave him a platform, writes Dani Garavelli
Even as enemies of the alt-right were toasting the collapse of much of the social media infrastructure on which Alex Jones built his InfoWars empire, the man himself was settling into his new role as a “freedom of speech” martyr. Perhaps, as Mark Zuckerberg is said to have suspected, that was his plan all along.
All platforms – be they print, broadcasting or social media – make decisions on which pieces will run and which will hit the spike
His removal, last week, from several major platforms, including Apple, Spotify, YouTube and Facebook, may have reduced his channels of communication, but it has also raised his profile, boosted downloads of his InfoWars app and handed him a new grievance to nurse; and, of course, he still has his website.
This is the Catch 22 of the post-truth era. Give the priest of paranoia a platform for his conspiracy theories and watch them thrive. Deny him a platform and help create a new one. Alex Jones: the man they tried to silence; the prophet who saw “the truth” so clearly the establishment closed ranks against him.
Whether he is banned or not, Jones’s alternative reality will endure. In the relentless pursuit of clicks, the MSM and social media have turned crackpots like Jones into credible figures, legitimising their hate-speech and allowing them to blur the distinction between fact and fiction. It’s a bit late now to start worrying that their rhetoric is beyond the pale.
Look at the damage that has already been done; the racist invective that has been normalised; the way the parameters of what is and is not acceptable have changed since the BBC first broke new ground by inviting BNP leader Nick Griffin on to Question Time in 2009.
Nigel Farage, a politician who has made so many appearances on that programme his name has surely been engraved on the back of his seat, now has his own LBC show on to which he recently invited former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who in turn called for English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson to be released from jail.
The BBC, not content with having effectively created Farage, invited former editor-in-chief of Breitbart, Raheem Kassam, on the Today programme to big up Robinson and, in the Spectator, Rod Liddle reacted to Boris Johnson’s comments on the burqa by yearning for a bit more Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.
Whenever it is mooted that giving airtime to this coterie of right-wing extremists might be inadvisable, libertarians insist the best way to counter bad arguments is with good arguments. Even in the face of Brexit and Trump, they’re still saying it. That’s how Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey justified not banning Jones. Fight lies with facts, he said. But it’s not like no-one’s tried to tackle the problem head-on. And how has it worked out? Well, last week the BBC referred to a violent attack on a left-wing bookshop as a “protest”, if that’s an indication.
Beyond the pursuit of clicks, there are two main drivers of the rise of the alt-right. One is a wilful misunderstanding of the concept of freedom of speech; the other is problem of “false balance”. The latter is rife amongst broadcasters. The producers of a news programme decide to cover, say, the poor rape conviction rates. They invite on a representative from Rape Crisis, but feel the need to “balance” that representative with someone who believes many women are “asking for it”, then treat the two views as if they are morally equivalent. This practice inflates the importance of fringe figures, such as men’s rights activist Mike Buchanan.
With the democratisation of the media has come a conflation of the freedom to speak and the right to be heard, so that nowadays every time an article is axed or a contributor dropped, there are cries of “censorship”. In reality, all platforms – be they print, broadcasting or social media – make decisions on which pieces will run and which will hit the spike. I know, for example, that the kinds of columns I write would never find a home in the Daily Mail, but there is no more onus on the Daily Mail to publish what I write than there is on me to read what it publishes.
Jones may be legally entitled to express his opinions on a US street corner and on his own website; but no privately owned company is obliged to disseminate them. Yet the belief that removing his videos and podcast would infringe on his freedoms is so entrenched that, for years, his “right” to spread lies about the Sandy Hook massacre has been allowed to trump the rights of bereaved parents to mourn the deaths of their children free from calumny and harassment.
Some people argue that social media platforms have more in common with Times Square than the New York Times; that they are virtual street corners rather than virtual publishers. But this too is specious. Most social media companies curate content to a greater or lesser degree. And there are rules users are supposed to adhere to, even if they appear incoherent and are inconsistently applied. Up until now, there has been a perception that Facebook is happy to crack down on those with small follower bases while turning a blind eye to those, like Jones, who can be relied upon to drive traffic.
The fact that Apple, Facebook and YouTube have now taken a stand against Jones shows social media companies are finally acknowledging that with great power comes responsibility. If their ban on Jones has come too late to destroy InfoWars, then at least the precedent it sets may prevent aspiring Joneses from building similar empires in the future.
Over at Twitter, which sees itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party”, Dorsey is still in denial. He said Jones hadn’t violated Twitter’s rules (changing his mind last night after CNN presented him with evidence). Twitter’s rules forbid hateful conduct, harassment, violent threats, wishes of physical harm on individuals. But they are, in any case, manmade. If they don’t preclude comparing Parklands shooting survivor David Hogg to a Nazi, then change them. It’s not difficult.
Now social media sites are finally thinking about the ethics of validating the alt-right, it is to be hoped the traditional media will follow suit. It would be good if the Spectator stopped seeking out fame-hungry egotists to write pieces on the evils of feminism and our newspapers and public service broadcaster asked themselves where their predilection for giving succour to every two-bit racist with an eye for the main chance is likely to lead.
Such commentators do not express themselves in a vacuum; their words are heard, absorbed, promulgated and sometimes acted upon. Every day, we bear witness to the physical legacy of alt-right ideology; hateful slogans daubed on walls, for example, and a spike in the number of attacks on Muslims.
With so much at stake, those who have licensed sinister fools like Jones, Farage or Bannon must stop shrugging their shoulders and mumbling “freedom of speech” like a spell to ward off criticism. It might be too late to put the genie back in the bottle, but there’s no longer any excuse for giving it a prime-time slot.