Last week, conservatives, who had previously made free speech heroes out of such shady subjects as would-be lady-killer Kevin Williamson and outrage peddler Milo Yiannopoulos, outdid themselves by nominating a new wingnut John Peter Zenger: Alex Jones. Remember, Jones is the nut who is being sued for claiming the dead Sandy Hook students were just faking it and has been actively tormenting the children’s parents, and who recently talked on air about killing Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller after having also called him a pedophile. There have been many other psychotic outbursts.
Jones won conservatives’ support by getting thrown off of Facebook, YouTube, and (partially) Apple for promoting hate speech, which seems pretty fair in his case. But conservatives turned this into what we might call a First Amendment With an Explanation issue — that is, the First Amendment doesn’t really support the argument that private companies should be forced to carry Jones’s content, but conservatives seemed to think if they bitched about it awhile they’d get their way.
Jones’s public-forum slack was quickly picked up by other media players, at least to hear him tell it: He announced he’d added 5.6 million new subscribers just 48 hours after what Breitbart described as his “Big Tech Blacklisting.” NBC News reported that Jones’s move from YouTube to Real.Video “caused a surge in new users and the creation of over 350 new channels on the site in the last day, an uptick from the ‘dozens’ that [Real.Video creator Mike Adams] noted in a video three weeks ago.” Twitter, perhaps sensing a market opportunity, declined to ban Jones.
You’d think conservatives would be happy about this free-market solution. Yet even as Jones was celebrating his windfalls, conservatives were rending their garments over the big, mean, allegedly liberal corporations who had told Jones to fuck off, thereby violating his civil rights.
Most of the brethren were careful to add that, of course, they didn’t endorse Jones’s rantings — which they sometimes didn’t bother to describe — but were just defending his right to appear on other people’s media platforms as a matter of conservative principle.
For example, National Review editor Rich Lowry, writing in Politico, called Jones a “poisonous toad” — though he mainly faulted Jones for “lunatic theories about the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg group and the Illuminati” that “have been a fringe staple for decades.” See, he’s just like the harmless nuts appearing on public access television! (Lowry only mentioned Jones’s Sandy Hook views briefly in the fourteenth paragraph.)
“But banning Jones,” Lowry wrote, “especially in the manner it was done, has significant ramifications for free speech.” Lowry admitted these corporations “can silence whomever they like,” but contended that the right to do so was not the issue (let alone the discussion-ender a normal person might think it was) because “the power of social-media platforms is enormous,” and to Lowry that power “suggests that these companies have a responsibility, in keeping with their outsize role in the public debate, to give the widest possible latitude to free speech.”
Lowry didn’t say why Facebook’s power makes the company any more responsible to accommodate Jones than, say, the Wall Street Journal or National Review, but he eventually got to his real gripe anyway: liberals. Facebook said it had dumped Jones for “hate speech,” Lowry wrote, which apparently is a liberal thing to do: “There is considerable sentiment on the left for the proposition that using disfavored pronouns for transgender people is dehumanizing.” By Lowry’s logic, it would be problematic if Facebook ejected an asshole who insisted on calling a trans woman “he.” “The possibility of a slippery slope here,” Lowry wrote, “is real and disturbing.”
David French, another National Review writer, was also given space in a better-read journal — the New York Times — to make his case for Jones’s free-speech rights. French too made the obligatory diss on Jones (“loathsome conspiracy theorist”) and about the very concept of hate speech (“ever-changing social justice style guide”), but he also offered the errant tech companies a solution: only prohibit content that meets the legal definitions of libel and slander. “It’s a high bar,” French admitted. “But it’s a bar that respects the marketplace of ideas.”
While Jones’s content is “polarizing,” and includes some unnamed “discredited claims about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting,” wrote Fox News’ Brian Flood, Jones’s removal was “prompting even some of the bomb thrower’s staunch critics to voice censorship concerns.”
As it happened, the “staunch critics” Flood named were conservatives such as Mark Dice, Ben Shapiro, and veteran wingnut Brent Bozell, who claimed in Flood’s story that Jones is not even a conservative, a dubious assertion since nearly everyone Jones excoriates in his rants is a liberal. Flood quoted Bozell as saying he opposed Jones’s removal as “a dangerous cliff that these social media companies are jumping off to satisfy CNN and other liberal outlets.” Flood added, “Bozell said that tech giants caving to CNN’s push ‘is part of a disturbing trend’ that includes influential conservatives being muted on Twitter,” which is in reference to an earlier bullshit story. Attacking a fellow conservative as a nonconservative, then claiming that removing this nonconservative shows bias against conservatives, is some next-level shit.
Even that subgenus of conservatives known as “libertarians” were against Facebook et al. exercising their freedom of association rights against Jones. “Booting someone like Jones from Facebook or YouTube altogether could easily turn him into a martyr among his paranoid fans,” said Timothy B. Lee, a libertarian stalwart at Ars Technica. “Social Media Giants Shouldn’t Be Arbiters of Appropriate Speech,” groused David Harsanyi at libertarian flagship Reason.
“Banning Alex Jones Isn’t About Free Speech — It’s About the Incoherence of ‘Hate Speech,’ ” wrote Harsanyi’s colleague Robby Soave, who added, “I’m saying this for a third time so that I’m not misunderstood: Facebook can define hate speech however it wants.” But Soave continued, social media platforms’ “broad view of what constitutes unacceptable hate speech” may “prompt yet more cries of viewpoint censorship down the road.” And, as we saw in the threats congressional Republicans hit Facebook with recently, “cries of viewpoint censorship” can get serious real fast.
This view of the Jones case soon seeped into what’s left of the mainstream. On a CNN roundtable that addressed the Jones situation, pundits kept calling what happened to Jones “censorship,” as if he’d been banned from the internet rather than from an unwilling transmitter. The most hilarious was “First Amendment attorney” Marc J. Randazza, who, honest to God, did the Martin Niemöller thing for Jones, starting with “First they came for the Nazis…” and then warning liberals, “When [censorship] comes for them, who will be left to speak up?” As if there were a single conservative in America you could name who’d say shit about it.
Meanwhile, Microsoft told the alt-right site Gab to get rid of neo-Nazi Patrick Little’s anti-Semitic posts if it wanted to continue using Azure servers. Eventually Little “voluntarily” removed the posts, Gab announced.
Surely Microsoft’s threat was, if anything, more of a free-speech faux pas than Jones’s defenestration. After all, even offensive speech deserves protection from corporate interference, right? And Little’s posts certainly weren’t slanderous or libelous, thus passing David French’s test. Yet none of the previously mentioned conservatives, or any other conservatives I could find, leapt to Little’s defense. (Well, the Daily Stormer and the guys at 4chan did, but maybe we shouldn’t count them — at least not yet.)
Despite all the lofty talk, this isn’t about principles, but about power. Normally conservatives think corporations do no wrong. For example, they’ll never claim Monsanto has some vague “responsibility” to make sure Roundup doesn’t destroy the planet. But social media companies have something conservatives desperately want: the attention of millions of Americans. National Review, Reason, Fox News, and the rest do their best to compete with social media companies on the allegedly level playing field of free-market capitalism. But the media companies can’t compete with social media’s reach — that’s why conservatives are muscling these companies. These media companies hope to win not only points from Jones’s adoring, ignorant fan base, but also more concessions from risk-averse social media companies. As often with conservatives, it’s whine-win!