You may not know who Alex Jones is by name, but odds are you’ve heard of the famous clip where he declared “I don’t like them putting the chemicals in the water that turn the frickin’ frogs gay!”
There’re not many reasons to take Alex Jones seriously. He’s a conspiracy theorist and provocateur who figured out a way to monetize his nuttiness.
However, he was banned by multiple platforms over the course of a few days, including Facebook, Spotify, YouTube, and Apple removed his podcasts from iTunes and the Podcasts app. Twitter later suspended Jones for a week.
“What sparked their removal?” PolitiFact asks. “The idea is similar throughout: Jones violated the social media platforms’ hate speech policies.”
This concerns me, and it should concern you too, whether you like Alex Jones or not. I don’t particularly care for him, so I mostly ignore him.
But even if you hate him with the fury of a thousand suns, you should still be concerned. There’s a lot of bad precedents being set here.
Bad Precedent #1: Monopoly behavior
It’s not coincidental that all of these companies acted at the same time. Some people were gunning for Alex Jones, and that day happened to be the day on which it happened. However, even if it wasn’t some sort of conspiracy where those companies worked in concert to delete Alex Jones from the internet, they still appear to think the same way and act the same way.
Which is a problem because many of these companies have near monopolies in their specific areas. YouTube owns the user-made video market. Apple controls what can go on a iPhone, a huge market. Facebook is basically the only general-purpose social network in the Western world. Spotify is a major player in streaming music and podcasts.
If a monopoly or near-monopoly bans you from an industry, you’re in trouble. That’s part of the reason why we generally ban monopolies.
But, in general, these companies are supposed to be competing with each other. It’s frightening that none of the companies weighed the risks and benefits of keeping Jones on their platform. This was a chance to get a competitive edge by being the “exclusive” home of Alex Jones.
Maybe that’s not something you want to be known for, but it will make you a lot of money. He’s a popular person, and driving all that traffic to your site will sell a lot of ads.
Instead, no one went for the competitive option. And if they’re not competing, they’re colluding, or at least, acting in concert. When companies that control so much of the Internet collude, everybody loses.
It makes you wonder what other public figures already have axes hanging over their neck. Each of the companies in this group is just waiting for another to move. When one does, all of the axes drop. That’s scary stuff.
Bad Precedent #2: Paternalism
I’m really not a fan of the paternalism concept. I agree along broad lines: the government generally shouldn’t decide what’s good or bad for you when it comes to actions you take that don’t affect other people. You should generally be allowed to make your own choices.
However, this is often easier said than done. Much of what we do affects other people.
I think, however, the government has more say than other organizations because we vote. There are some fundamental lines that shouldn’t be crossed, generally spelled out in the Bill of Rights, but I’m willing to cut the government more slack because we elect the people who make the laws, and consequently have a say in the process.
We collectively agree to allow or disallow certain things, often for the public good.
Neither you nor I have any say in how Facebook, Apple, Google, or Spotify is run. If they claim to act in the public good, well, they’re not, because the public doesn’t have the final say in how the rules are set. Facebook claims the following: “We are an open platform for all ideas, a place where we want to encourage self-expression, connection and sharing.” But, you can’t claim to be an open platform and also restrict what people can say.
I’m not saying that the public should have a vote in how these platforms operate, though that’s not a terrible idea, just that they’re being very paternalistic when they tell us what we can and cannot say and can or cannot consume. That should be for us to decide.
Bad Precedent #3: Hate Speech Rules used to Silence your Opponents
Speaking of open platforms, we should examine the hate speech rules that are in play here. Here are Facebook’s rules, drawn from their community standards:
“We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability. We also provide some protections for immigration status. We define attack as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation.”
Violent or dehumanizing speech? Statements of inferiority? Direct attacks?
These seem kind of vague. I can think of some phrases that could conceivably be or not be dehumanizing.
For instance: I don’t like you. You’re scum.
Kind? Certainly not.
Ban-worthy? I don’t know.
It doesn’t help that Facebook doesn’t explain these concepts well. In their explanation for each phrase, Facebook uses the phrase “including, but not limited to” six times.
There are some concrete things that are no-nos, but the list is theoretically infinite. It’s not “limited to” those listed things.
Which means that someone is making a subjective judgment call about whether something is appropriate or not.
I think they have every right to kick whoever they want off their platforms. But I want them to be consistent so that you can try to follow the rules. As it stands, anything you say could end up in the category of “not limited to.” With more concrete rules, this problem goes away.
Maybe try removing illegal content and banning for repeated offenses. That’s way less subjective.
But, since it ultimately comes down to judgment calls, these companies have the authority to censor based on what they like and what they don’t like. I don’t know why they think they have the moral high ground to do so, but they clearly reserve it for themselves.
Which is too bad because it turns these platforms into closed ones. Which is too bad because the appeal of these platforms is that they’re open. Which is too bad because social media has the potential to change the world. Anyone can join. Anyone can speak their mind. Anyone can try and make a difference.
It doesn’t matter who you are, or if you’re irrelevant in real life. Online, you can be heard, and by an audience of thousands or millions.
Except for Alex Jones. He was judged and found wanting.
Are you next?