Alex Jones is annoying.
Jones, who is sometimes called a conspiracy theorist, is a provocateur. In our line of work, there are always a few of those – persistent, bullying and best ignored.
There are differences, however, between a news organization and a social media platform, such as Facebook or Twitter, both of which have now banned Jones.
The social media giants seldom hold themselves responsible for the content they host. At the same time, they tout the ways they facilitate the exchange of news and information, and have even styled themselves civil society groups, for the ways they have truly enabled the oppressed to speak out.
In practice, what this means is that along with pictures of grandchildren and alerts from the beleaguered, anyone at any time can also find some horrible material.
Facebook, for example, has struggled to include Holocaust denialism. Founder Mark Zuckerberg told an interviewer this summer, “There’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong.”
We, too, are offended by Holocaust denial. But it is a fact of life, just like racism, sexism and other social ills. We may not choose to debate whether the Holocaust occurred, but social media has become so ubiquitous that there is no point pretending it is a moderated conversation. It is an imitation of life.
And Alex Jones is one of those people that gets things wrong – and does it for a living.
Some will say he is being censored. Others will say it is not censorship unless the government does it. What seems clear is that Jones has been gagged. The Twitter ban, said The New York Times, “cuts off Mr. Jones’ final direct channel to mainstream audiences.”
You don’t have to buy what Jones is selling, of course. No one who supports these bans does. But should these platforms really have the power to kill it because they don’t like his wares, which are speech?
Some say this isn’t a free-speech issue because Facebook and Twitter are private businesses, whereas the First Amendment only applies to what government cannot do. This is half right.
We cannot see why it would not be constitutional if these companies banned one of their users or all of their users, for example.
But free speech is much more than the First Amendment. To believe in it is to believe that while ideas may be good or bad, ideas alone cannot be pernicious. It is only their application that can do harm.
It is not enough to be protected from the government, John Stuart Mill wrote in “On Liberty.”
“There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose ... its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.”
So, then, why should we silence Alex Jones, or anyone?
In Jones’ case, it is not just because he speaks. There are at least tens of thousands of people on Twitter and Facebook who are worse.
It is because some of us think that he is heard. And that is a poor and fearful argument.