Alex Jones is a media personality that attracts great attention, often for the wrong reasons. As the founder and main presenter of online news program ‘Infowars’, he gained notoriety mostly as conspiracy theorist as well as for his belligerent onscreen persona. Up until recently, Infowars has circulated mostly through YouTube with Jones’ channel accruing over a billion video views and close to three million subscribers. That all changed on the 5th August as Infowars and with it Alex Jones was wiped from nearly all of its online hosts. YouTube, Facebook, Spotify and later Twitter terminated accounts associated with Jones all citing a breach of terms of service. Jones’ case presents the greatest challenge yet to the orthodoxy of internet censorship by social media corporations. They have in this exercise of their power, shown their hand and set alarm bells off in the minds of those who believe they might be next. As these companies continue to consolidate their power, it would seem there are two options before us.
The first of these is merely to do nothing. This means allowing media corporations to censor whatever they wish by their terms of service, the status quo. The problem at present is that the enforcement of current standards centres around ambiguous ill-famed terms such as ‘hate speech’. Their application proves inconsistent. American Journalist Sarah Jeong was recently at the centre of a controversy after her Twitter feed was discovered to be a treasure trove of anti-white racism. Uncovered were statements of a kind that would unequivocally merit a ban if said about any other ethnic group and possibly a prison sentence in Britain. Twitter, in what is an emerging pattern of behaviour, failed to hold Jeong’s conduct to the same standard they hold their political enemies. In failing to apply their rules equally, they act not merely as instruments but enforcers of a particular political orthodoxy. Does this power have any limitation? Social media companies undoubtedly harbour the ability to influence elections. Not only this but they have now shown a willingness to collude with one another to political ends. If we are to adopt the view that they should be the sole arbiters of what is displayed on their platforms, what objections, in principle, could we level if they tried to do so? It would seem very few. Perhaps then no standard at all is better than one applied poorly.
This brings us to our second option, compelling these companies to act in a non-discriminatory way. There is obvious utility in this, treating everybody equally allows us to stop worrying about social media censorship. Nevertheless, we have to think carefully about what it means to grant positive rights to a platform. Is each of us entitled to the labour and capital of these companies? Should these businesses be forced to associate with people they believe to be repressible? This appears effectively to be government enforced self-sabotage. However, if ever there was a place for it, it would be here. The arguments often cited around free association are based on an assumption of a competitive marketplace that facilitates consensus in our economic affairs. Economist Milton Friedman described this as the market’s ability to achieve “unanimity without conformity”. If one service provider doesn’t wish to serve you, you will be able to find another who will, so in the end, all trading relationships are voluntary. But how many substitutes are there to YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook? This mechanism can’t operate in a market dominated by three companies who all think the same. These are distinctions that matter. Arguments in principle are a good rule of thumb but don’t always map well into reality. The exceptions of this particular case lend themselves to the case of government compulsion in what is ultimately a clash of principles against pragmatism.
Neither of these options is perfect, but we all share a common enemy in corporate hegemony over what we see and hear. Alex Jones, while a total nutcase, was in the ears of millions of people and yet could be censored at the push of a button. Defences for such behaviour rely on specific market conditions being met, and we will have to decide whether our online hosting mechanisms harbour the plasticity to facilitate the liberal dream of free association or if a more pragmatic approach will be required. Infowars is still broadcasting, albeit solely from its website. Its survival rests now on the will of its listeners to seek it out. If they do so and Infowars continues to thrive, then perhaps these worries are overstated. If they do not, then social media companies are indeed as powerful as they seem. Ultimately we shall have to wait and see.