The final domino in the Alex Jones and InfoWars saga fell on Tuesday, as Twitter officially laid down a one-week ban on the far-right political commentator for what they called “inciting violence” in a tweet. After tech giants like Apple, Spotify, YouTube, and Facebook issued a variety of suspensions, bans and removals to Jones, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was the only major holdout still allowing the InfoWars host and perpetual figure of controversy to use their platform.
The removal of Jones’ podcasts and revocation of his access to social media has brought out the strongest of opinions from amateur and professional political buffs on both sides of the spectrum; some standing in support of the rights of private companies to censor their members, and others defending Jones’ right to free speech.
This response brings up an interesting point about social media as a whole. As research has shown, much of social media’s influence over its users’ opinions stems from the fact that it acts as an “echo chamber” for our already held ideas and opinions. With the motivation to do research and formulate an educated opinion being watered down by a bombardment of self-proclaimed experts shouting their version of “facts” from electronic soapboxes, there does seem to be evidence that these platforms provide ample space in which to polish radical ideas and incite violence.
However, companies like YouTube and Facebook haven’t cited any of that in their explanations for why Jones was banned. Instead, they have presented a nebulous cloud of buzzwords and legal speak, citing ill-defined concepts like “hate speech” and vague references to Terms of Service.
YouTube has a history of presenting a revolving door of rules and requirements to their content creators, and have drawn criticism from political and non-political parties alike for their policies on monetizing videos some would consider “controversial.” Facebook and their CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been on Capitol Hill recently over their use of private information, and their handling of potential “fake news” has drawn harsh criticism from across the board.
According to an article published by Vox, however, Twitter and Jack Dorsey had been choosing the wrong path through their “amoral” stance on Jones, and their refusal to bow to public pressure. Dorsey maintained that Jones’ behavior had not warranted a ban based on the company’s rules, which the CEO admitted had been terribly explained in a controversial thread of tweets addressing the situation.
This begs the question – at what point do these actions condemn Twitter to the moral low ground? Since this occurs in the private sector, these companies are within their rights to ban anyone who violates their rules. On the other side of that very same coin, Twitter is also well within their rights to refuse to partake in a ban in the interest of trying to evenly apply punishment on their platform.
While free speech advocates praised Dorsey for his adherence to his policies, many still questioned Dorsey’s motives in his decision to deviate from other tech giants and allow Jones to maintain his presence on Twitter.
Journalists have hypothesized that Dorsey was afraid of backlash from Republican lawmakers, or perhaps just “politically naive” about the implications of his actions. Twitter has received it’s fair share of criticism over the past couple of years, precisely for its decision to ban several controversial users, so perhaps Dorsey just recognized a no-win situation when he saw it.
Or perhaps it was something deeper.
With Jones being the spokesperson for some of the most viral and repulsive conspiracy theories, he and much of his fanbase have been surviving on an innate persecution complex. While platforms like Apple and YouTube were attempting to get tough in the face of Jones’ propaganda, it is entirely possible that they have made strides to legitimize the InfoWars community as victims of unfair treatment.
Exploring this side of the issue, Dorsey’s handling of Jones on Twitter may have been with the knowledge that an action to silence these viewpoints could easily be construed as a politically motivated overapplication of the company’s policies. Regardless, public pressure to remove Jones reached a fever pitch, and the scales quickly tipped in favor of siding with the other companies.
Shannon Coulter, a former Penn State graduate who famously advocated for a boycott of Donald Trump-related products and services, began a campaign to convince Twitter to change their stance by attacking their advertisers. Coulter created an easy database for people interested in hurting Dorsey and his company to find and block Fortune 500 companies who sponsor Twitter in one fell swoop.
According to TheNextWeb, nearly fifty thousand people had done just that as of approximately 8:00 PM Tuesday. Although Twitter’s official position is that Jones’ account is only banned for a week as a result of a specific tweet inciting violence, it’s quite possible that a sustained campaign attacking Twitter’s advertisers could “convince” the company to make the suspension permanent.
Having already established that a private company is within its rights both to censor a user who violates their terms and to not censor a user who had not done so, Dorsey wouldn’t be violating any Constitutional rights either way. In addition, protesters on both sides, even ones who attempted to hit Twitter directly in their wallets, are also exercising their rights to free speech. So where’s the issue?
It comes down to how much power we want to cede to increasingly powerful tech entities, and whether we’re comfortable with where they will draw the line in what is sure to be thousands of other cases just like this. One thing this has certainly reinforced is the relative power of a handful of powerful tech companies to effectively scrub repugnant voices from the internet.
While today many of us can agree that Alex Jones is perhaps the worst poster boy imaginable for censorship, the definition for what qualifies as repugnant is an elusive and expanding target. It’s almost certainly bound to backfire on us in the long run, meting out punishment to figures much more complicated than Jones. We have a tendency to elevate the voice of the mob, and we are conditioning the new social media gatekeepers to listen.