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Alex Jones And The Outer Limits Of Free Speech On Social Media

Alex Jones protesting in Dallas, Texas, in 2014. (Sean P. Anderson via Wikimedia Commons)
Alex Jones protesting in Dallas, Texas, in 2014. (Sean P. Anderson via Wikimedia Commons)

With David Folkenflik

The big social media platforms silence Alex Jones. What does this mean for free speech, for American democracy? We’ll dive in.


Adrian Chen, writer who has covered technology and internet culture for a number of outlets including The New Yorker, The New York Times and Wired Magazine. (@AdrianChen)

Kate Klonick, assistant professor of law at St. John’s University. (@Klonick)

Jeff Jarvis, he writes an influential media blog at Professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. Author of “Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News,” and more. (@jeffjarvis)

Bill Ogden, partner at Farrar & Ball LLP law firm in Houston, Texas. He represents three families who lost children in the Sandy Hook school shooting who are suing Alex Jones for defamation.

Interview Highlights

Our caller Russell of Rome, Georgia, on why he’s uncomfortable with companies regulating speech

“I just think that it’s kind of a weird situation where you have a big tech situation sort of curating what is OK for you to listen to and not OK for you to listen to. I’m probably in a major minority where I love to listen to NPR every day, and I listen to Alex every day. And now, I can’t get on iTunes and get his podcast anymore. My market doesn’t carry him, so that’s the only way for me to listen to him.

“It just kind of really bothers me that Apple is telling me what I can and cannot listen. While they do have that right, I feel like the social media companies and iTunes and all are sort of in a different category because that’s a huge revenue stream for InfoWars. It’s not the same as free speech just in general, it also hurts them monetarily really bad, and it’s just sort of setting a very dangerous precedent.”

On how social media sites may be more “public” than other private entities

Adrian Chen: “I think the size and the scope of it that you pointed out does make it a little different than something like a Barnes and Noble, where people are really using these things now as a public square. This is where so much of the discourse that goes into politics — and also our lives — happens, and so it’s really a privately controlled, sort of semi-public space, and that’s something that’s very new about the platforms versus old media.”

On whether social media sites are taking controversial speech seriously, and issues that come up in that policy.

Kate Klonick: “My research says that they’re definitely taking it seriously. I think that they’re working really, really hard to solve these problems and to kind of figure out how they want to respond to them. I think that one of the dangers that you brought up in the intro to the show, and something really interesting to think about, is you said like, ‘What do we want them to do?’ And the caller who called in was bothered by the fact that tech companies get to control his access to information about things, that he just doesn’t feel like that’s right. He should have access to this information.

“I guess there are two questions there, and one that you brought up is ‘Who is the “we” anyway?’ Which I think is a really great problem, because these are global transnational companies, and so the standards that they are setting are enforced globally, and that’s kind of a very interesting problem, because the way they set their standard for speech in the U.S. is very different from norms and standards people want to be set in the EU or in Africa or in India.”

On whether social media is a public square where free speech should be enforced.

Jeff Jarvis: “I think the default of the platforms is toward freedom of speech, but again, you have bad actors trying to take advantage of that goodwill that you have. I think that they have a responsibility. I hear journalists say in the same breath, ‘Facebook has to go clean up this mess, but I don’t trust Facebook to make judgments.’ What we are expecting them to do is to deal with Russian manipulation, we are expecting them to do a lot of things. [Facebook] is not the entirety of the internet.

“Mark Zuckerberg is not responsible for free speech in the world. The internet is a public square, the internet as a whole, but the various platforms on it, including your show’s own website, and the New York Times’s comments, and letters to the editor of the Washington Post, those are all controlled ways in which the public has a conversation. Much more controlled than we have today.”

Our caller Ali of York, Maine, on whether there’s a double standard in how Alex Jones has been treated. 

“If his name was Imam Jones, and somebody went out and shot up a pizzeria, I feel like that they would have much worse repercussions than what it is now.”

From The Reading List

Harvard Law Review: “The New Governors: The People, Rules, and Processes Governing Online Speech” — “Private online platforms have an increasingly essential role in free speech and participation in democratic culture. But while it might appear that any internet user can publish freely and instantly online, many platforms actively curate the content posted by their users. How and why these platforms operate to moderate speech is largely opaque.

“This Article provides the first analysis of what these platforms are actually doing to moderate online speech under a regulatory and First Amendment framework. Drawing from original interviews, archived materials, and internal documents, this Article describes how three major online platforms — Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — moderate content and situates their moderation systems into a broader discussion of online governance and the evolution of free expression values in the private sphere.”

The Hill: “ACLU: Alex Jones ban could set dangerous social media precedent” — “Ben Wizner, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) speech, privacy and technology project, warned Monday that bans against Alex Jones and Infowars could set a dangerous precedent.

“Wizner told HuffPost that the hate speech policies many social media companies cited when they banned Jones can be “misused and abused.”

“Earlier this month, Jones’s content was pulled from Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Vimeo for violating policies related to hate speech. He was later hit with a temporary suspension by Twitter as well.”

Fortune: “Reactions to InfoWars and Big Tech’s Free Speech Quandary” — “In my last column, I asked what approach tech companies should take in dealing with Alex Jones, proprietor of that incendiary, bunk-spewing outlet InfoWars. To recap: Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and others expunged Jones’ bellicose babble from their archives, but Twitter refused. In response, Jones took to Periscope, a video broadcaster owned by Twitter, and urged his followers to ready their ‘battle rifles’ against any number of perceived ‘enemies,’ including the so-called mainstream media.

“Jones’ call to arms crossed a line apparently. Twitter responded, begrudgingly, by slapping Jones with a seven-day suspension. In a Wednesday evening interview with NBC, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, explained the decision in the manner of an inattentive parent forced to ground an unruly teen, if only for the sake of appearances. ‘We put him in a time out,’ Dorsey said, limply.”

CNBC: “Trump says it’s ‘very dangerous’ when Twitter, Facebook self-regulate content” — “President Donald Trump is again putting pressure on technology companies, telling Reuters in an interview published Monday that it’s ‘very dangerous’ when social platforms like Twitter and Facebook self-regulate content.

“‘I won’t mention names but when they take certain people off of Twitter or Facebook and they’re making that decision, that is really a dangerous thing because that could be you tomorrow,’ Trump said.”

Alex Jones has millions of fans and at least as many critics. The far-right online talk show host traffics in wild conspiracy theories that have been blamed for real-world harm. Now leading social media giants including Facebook and Twitter are grappling with public pressure to do something about it — and conservatives are claiming censorship.

This hour, On Point: the limits of free speech in our digital age.

— David Folkenflik

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