An issue which has been doing the rounds recently online, but which has so far failed to attract much mainstream media attention in the UK, is the decision by three major tech companies – YouTube, Apple and Facebook, to ban the controversial content of Alex Jones and his site InfoWars. Those unfamiliar with Alex Jones and his work should probably take a few moments to count themselves lucky. InfoWars is an online hotbed of radical right-wing rhetoric and elaborate conspiracy theories, which in the past have included claims such as that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, that Barack Obama is the global head of Al-Qaeda, that the U.S. Government is using juice boxes to “make children gay”, and that the U.S. Air Force has in the past created weaponized tornadoes in the Midwest as part of an enduring geo-war against the American people.
One would hope not much time needs to be spent in this article debunking these theories, and yet the problem here is exactly how much popularity such content enjoys online. The influence that InfoWars has had in public discourse since the 2016 US election is a huge concern, as is the increasing political polarization spreading across the West, with right and left pulling apart into angry insular tribes. The pressure on social media sites to act as arbiters for the content on their platforms has also been mounting as the wider political climate has grown increasingly toxic, so it is unsurprising that the Big Three mentioned above have finally brought the hammer down and issued a ban. Unfortunately, this is quite likely a case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
It cannot be denied that private companies have the right to decide what is allowed on their sites, and that the banning of InfoWars will no doubt prevent the dissemination of much misinformation into the public domain. Some may even argue in favour of the ban based on a position of combatting hate speech. Certainly, this is the position taken by the companies themselves, who cite hate speech as the principal sin committed by Alex Jones and Co leading to his expulsion. These points aside however, the banning of InfoWars may prove to have disastrous unforeseen consequences, and its implications for the future of free speech are bleak. The vital question which the mainstream media has failed to ask yet is this: “should private companies be responsible for deciding what does and does not constitute acceptable political speech?”
The question should not be whether the Big Three have the right to decide what is featured on their sites, then, but whether we as consumers should tolerate the censorship of political ideas in any public forum, social media included. Consider this: the removal of InfoWars from these platforms not only removes the right of Alex Jones and his followers to speak, but also removes the right of the people to listen. Why would anyone want to listen to half-baked right-wing fear mongering and paranoid conspiracies, you ask? Well, for one thing there’s considerable utility in knowing exactly what lunatics are thinking, especially lunatics with numbers large enough to help elect a President. The censoring of InfoWars does little to combat the growing popularity of right-wing populism, merely cutting the head from the radical Hydra – forced underground and galvanised by a narrative of oppression, two heads are bound to grow back in its place.
There are other reasons to question the actual benefits of such a ban. Let’s consider for a minute a possibility – no doubt a dangerous and taboo thing to suggest in our morally fraught day and age: what if not everything Alex Jones has ever said has been entirely rubbish? Can we deny the outside possibility that there is a kernel of truth hidden somewhere in the dark labyrinth of InfoWars? Perhaps 0.001% of the content of Alex Jones’ mad rants have some basis in reality. Perhaps buried in all that nonsense and noise is a small glimmer of light, which has been overlooked by the majority. Indeed, this was the contention of J.S. Mill in his book On Liberty: that the despised and neglected dissenter just might be sitting on an overlooked truth. It is therefore vital to allow him his say and give him true scrutiny, so fact can be separated from falsehood, and ideas laid bare. Alternatively, Alex Jones could have spoken nothing but pure nonsense ever since he first opened his mouth. The point is that we cannot know, and we never will know now that the gates to the InfoWars underworld has been closed off for us “decent” ordinary folk.
There are indeed many who have been led astray in the past by InfoWars misinformation and lies. Yet should the solution to this really be to ban such speech outright? Indeed, is there really any easy fix to human stupidity? Further, what makes tech companies qualified in deciding what constitutes incorrect or hateful speech? These are not easy judgements to make, and the ambiguous nature of the terms “fake news” and “hate speech” only increases the risk of more legitimate political speech being censored in the future under the same banner. On the surface, the limitation of harmful speech (excluding direct incitement to violence here) seems like a reasonable proposition. However, the ultimate fly in the punch of this idea is that there is no value-neutral way of deciding on such limitations. What constitutes hate or falsehood cannot always be defined with accuracy, inevitably leading to such judgements being made through the paradigm of pre-existing, narrow political agendas. This means the imposition of one political stance over all others, either through the biases of the arbiters themselves, or those of the majority which gives them their mandate.
The philosophy behind the ban of InfoWars is also deeply questionable. The paternalism inherent in the decision to “protect” people from speech – both hateful and untrue, harbours the implicit assumption that individuals are doomed to be led astray by whatever loudmouthed demagogue barks at them. This deep pessimism has undoubtably been fuelled in part by the success of Donald Trump. Many Liberals are currently suffering from an existential crisis, doubting some of the fundamental axioms of their belief system. Liberals now must come to terms with the fact that, under the plurality of their system, people like Alex Jones can gain a huge following and Donald Trump can be elected President. Whatever lessons can be learned from the past few years however (and there are many), one of them cannot be that human beings are fundamentally incapable of thinking for themselves, and so must be herded towards a “correct” canon of thought, via the censorship of powerful arbiters.
We must not conclude that people are so frail that they will shatter like glass the moment a hateful utterance is spoken, and once again there is utility in knowing what ugly beliefs reside in people’s heads. Misguided efforts to impose order on political discourse by cracking down on distasteful views, even those which express hate, will prove suicidal in the long run to the liberal project. Accusations of hate speech are almost always built on claims of offense, and offense itself can emerge in any quarter, in relation to any idea. To say anything of any substance runs the risk of causing offense to someone, somewhere. Liberals must rekindle their conviction that, despite its faults and considerable costs, the unencumbered clash of ideas in a free public forum will ultimately provide more social benefit than the paternalistic interventions of “benevolent” tech moguls.
In a world where the mere mention of hate speech and fake news can cause otherwise liberal people to justify the banning of marginalized speech, what more is needed than good intentions to pave the way to tyranny? For the sake of preserving what truly matters through this existential crisis of our culture, I say let the mad dog bark.