This week, something quite unprecedented happened, an unusual positive development in the typically depressing world of the Internet and social media: most major social media and Internet publishing platforms, including Apple, Spotify and YouTube, finally banned arch conspiracy theorist and anti-Semitic Internet commentator Alex Jones, taking down his fulsome InfoWars podcasts, videos and other steaming products of his fevered mind for violating guidelines against hate speech. The outlier in the social media world is Twitter, who today (August 8, 2018) refused to follow suit. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, blamed us, the non-hateful users of Twitter, and the media for not doing enough to limit Jones’s reach. This is like the captain of the Titanic blaming the passengers for not doing enough to prevent their ship from hitting the iceberg.
Jack’s misguided move–and it is very misguided–aside, the major movers in Internet media finally taking action against Jones is quite a positive thing. Since the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s, our public discourse has been increasingly and irretrievably poisoned by the spread of falsehoods, conspiracy theories, racism, hate speech and other weaponized forms of communication that, in the era before the internet, were much more easily relegated to the fringe of society. Now in the late 2010s we’re reaping the results of this poison: a resurgence of fascism and Nazism, the “Manosphere” (an Internet bubble of extreme misogyny, exemplified by GamerGate), extreme environmental degradation fueled by industry-funded climate change denial, and the perversion of history by toxic ideology and harmful conspiracy theory. Jones has ridden this poison wave for over 20 years, since he first started ranting anti-Semitic nonsense on public access in Austin. That it took this long for the major platforms to start to muzzle him is a testament to how truly broken our public discourse is.
Twitter creator Jack Dorsey believes he is standing up for free speech, but by enabling and amplifying hate speech like Alex Jones’s, he is actually working to undermine our freedoms, not enhance them.
Make no mistake: what Jones has been spewing for decades on the radio and the Internet is hate speech. I know a great deal about the pathology of conspiracy theories, and the bedrock and north star of Jones’s ideology is now, and always has been, anti-Semitism. For decades, anti-Semites have sought to disguise the same toxic ideology that animated Hitler to commit his monstrous crimes in terms more acceptable to modern audiences, which is why the nonsense that was called the “Jewish world conspiracy” in the 1930s has been repackaged as the “New World Order” today. But it’s the same hatred that boiled in European villages during the 14th century, just before they murdered their Jews for “causing” the Black Death, and the same toxic slime that blinded the engineers of the Holocaust during World War II. It wasn’t limited to Europe. Father Coughlin, the Alex Jones of a previous era, spat the same bile over American airwaves in the 1920s. Putting it online and repackaging it as some sort of edgy journalism doesn’t change its basic nature.
Jack of Twitter, in his cynical refusal to stop amplifying this soul-corroding sludge, exemplifies the mistake that I identified back in October in my article about why Twitter is fundamentally and fatally broken. Twitter is not the guardian of free speech in our society. I wrote then, and still believe, that Twitter is a program, a product, a machine we use for certain things but which we should feel free to throw away when it no longer works. Treating Twitter like it’s the sacred hilltop where the ancient Athenians built the first democracy is a grotesque misunderstanding of what freedom of speech is and how it works. Furthermore, Twitter has demonstrated numerous times that it values the hate speech of high-profile, popular users much more than non-hateful content of ordinary people. Twitter has, on a very few occasions and with extreme reluctance, taken action against a handful of transgressors, like the odious Milo Yiannopolous. But its refusal to crack down on tens of thousands of other Nazis, GamerGaters, and Russian trolls and bots, who daily make life miserable on the platform for countless people (especially women and people of color), demonstrates where its sympathies lie.
Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who had a radio show in the 1920s and 1930s, was very similar to Alex Jones in his incredible popularity, his promotion of conspiracy theories and his anti-Semitic subtexts. He was ultimately taken off the air in much the same way (most of) the Internet turned against Alex Jones this week.
Twitter is broken. That’s been clear for a long time. But our public discourse is broken too. Today, if you Google “9/11 attacks,” you will bring up ten times more conspiracy theories and falsehoods, many of them anti-Semitic, than you will real information about the September 11 attacks. Alex Jones has a great deal to do with that. Shed no tears for this man–our society has extravagantly rewarded him, giving him millions of dollars, a vast audience of gullible sycophants, and even access to the President of the United States, who’s evidently a believer in his rantings. What to do with Alex Jones is easy: cripple his ability to reach people through the mass media, and he’ll live out his days shouting and grunting impotently at the walls of a decaying house in Austin where no one will hear him. But what to do about our broken public discourse is a much more difficult question to answer.