For better or worse, the recent news surrounding Alex Jones’ banishment from multiple online platforms has brought the ugly and ignoble use of freedom of speech into focus. For years, the controversial talk show host has promoted the uniquely repugnant conspiracy theory that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut was a hoax perpetrated by the government. Jones is currently being sued by families of children and educators who were killed in the attack, as well as an FBI agent who responded to the shooting.
For its part, Twitter decided against jumping aboard the banishment bandwagon, though it has just issued a one-week suspension to Jones’ account. And while CEO Jack Dorsey has weathered a fair bit of criticism for not exiling Jones outright, he continues to stand by his company’s decision.
To be clear, the punitive actions taken against Jones by Facebook, YouTube, and several other websites cannot and should not be construed as violations of the First Amendment. Privately owned websites are not beholden to the same legal restrictions as the government. The aforementioned platforms had every right to do what they did to Jones, and Twitter is free to follow suit if and when it so chooses.
That being said, freedom of speech is much more than just a legal principle; to many, freedom of speech is one of the most brilliant foundational principles of Western philosophy — and an indispensable one at that. The former is expressed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, while the latter lives on in the writings of thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Christopher Hitchens, in the speeches of orators like Frederick Douglass, and in the legacies of activists like Judith Krug.
The preservation of the First Amendment ought to be of the utmost importance to any self-respecting advocate of free speech, but the preservation of the principle of freedom of speech is, in my view, no less important. That is why, no matter how short-lived it proves to be, I’m rather grateful for Jack Dorsey’s hesitance to ban Alex Jones from Twitter.
There are myriad compelling arguments in support of freedom of speech, but the one that I’ve always found the most convincing is that the power to silence unpopular voices is simply too great a power to trust in the hands of any single human being or human institution — not you, not I, not Twitter, and certainly not the federal government. On the whole, human beings are biased, petty and vindictive creatures. Our species’ propensity for exercising power in nefarious ways is well documented and undeniable. And as our flaws are reflected not just in ourselves but also in the institutions we create, such institutions must also never be trusted with the power to suppress unpopular speech.
However, that distrust ought not to extend exclusively to the public institutions bound by the First Amendment. Private platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which have rapidly evolved into popular online destinations for those seeking political debate, exert incredible influence over the direction of the national political discourse. With the press of a button, social media companies are now able to sever the links between notable public figures and the millions of global users who follow them. The implications of that power should weigh heavily on the mind of every thinker, every activist, every blogger and every artist whose life revolves around the exploration and expression of controversial opinions, thoughts and ideas.
Is it right that social media companies like Twitter and Facebook even hold such power? If you believe in the principle of freedom of speech, that’s a difficult question to answer; however, it’s also an irrelevant question. Whether anyone likes it or not, they do have that power, and the only way to wrestle it away from them is through the nationalization or strict regulation of these companies — and that will almost certainly never happen.
What free speech activists should instead ask for is a little more circumspection on the part of our social media overlords, as well as the transparent and consistently unbiased enforcement of these platforms’ terms of service. Fortunately, that seems to be precisely the kind of future that Jack Dorsey has in mind for Twitter.
In a thread explaining his company’s decision not to ban Alex Jones, Dorsey stressed the importance of abstaining from viewpoint discrimination:
“If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction. That’s not us.”
He also reminded his audience that Twitter is not and should not be regarded as an arbiter of truth, echoing comments made last year by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. He rightly considers it the job of the press to handle that responsibility:
“Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.”
This is all very good news for proponents of free speech. Dorsey’s statement conveys his appreciation not just for Twitter’s ability to influence political discourse, but also for the company’s moral obligation to wield that power sparingly, ethically, and with an abundance of caution. He seems to recognize that corporate entities cannot be trusted with the power to regulate the “marketplace of ideas,” that discourse of all types must be allowed to evolve organically and at their own pace, and that sorting out fact from fiction is a job best left to the scores of journalists, writers and fact-checkers who have devoted their careers to doing just that.
No one should be booted off Twitter strictly for expressing contentious opinions and ideas. They should instead be subjected to an impartial, apolitical review process and subsequently judged by the same standards applied to every other user of the platform. If that’s Jack Dorsey’s plan for dealing with situations like these in the future — and if he sincerely intends to bring that future to fruition — then count me in. I’m very much in favor of shoveling the rot out of the darkest corners of social media, but I’m also very much in favor of social media companies working to preserve and promote the spirit of freedom of speech in online spaces. And I see no reason why we can’t have both.