I had this video by Hank Green recommended to me on YouTube. It started out about Alex Jones’s 30 day ban from Facebook, and Ted Cruz’s subsequent defense of Jones. Green then took to the broader concern of how speech can get regulated by private interests. You can see the whole video below, which I highly recommend.
From the initial subject, Green roughly stated the difference between free speech and private publication of speech. Facebook is a private company. As such, it can regulate whatever speech it wants. Tomorrow it could ban all disparaging commentary about the Catholic church, and nobody could really do much about it on First Amendment grounds. Or, it could delete all dog videos and force users to watch at least one cat video per day. The possibilities are endless.
Before I get to the other points Green made, I’ve talked about free speech a lot here on my blog because it gets used as some sort of magical crucifix. Delete a comment or hold someone accountable for their speech, and suddenly moderators of sites can come under fire for “censoring” speech and creating echo chambers. I am under no delusions about how my posts here can disappear in the blink of an eye. Even if I paid to use this site, WordPress has no free speech obligation to host whatever I write. It can delete everything I’ve ever posted, and I would have to be okay with that.
What about the power Facebook has to shape opinion?
This is where some of the legal issues can get tricky. Green mentioned antitrust law possibly being used to break up a future monopoly, but that possibility isn’t likely in today’s regulatory atmosphere. Right now it’s only the use of Facebook in the aggregate that regulates Facebook’s behavior, and not even the government can meaningfully reign it in.
Green then brings up a point that I think concerns some people: is Facebook so powerful that it shouldn’t be treated like any other private company? To illustrate the point (I think) he’s making, it’s like the difference between your local TV station and its national network. Local TV in Florida can’t harass people in Maine very well, but national news outlets can shine a very bright spotlight on a single person. The number of eyes on something matters to people trying to get word out to the world.
My problem with this idea is that it gives Facebook more credit than it might deserve. Nobody is required to use Facebook, and nobody has to view all the content that Facebook has to offer. This puts Facebook at the mercy of anyone who has the ability to shrug and ignore the platform. And even if one is afraid of what angry people on social media will do, that will be a problem no matter what platform they use.
What about how it feels to be silenced?
I think these feelings are the growing pains of people as they grapple with new technology. It’s a social mechanism that used to exist elsewhere. The Internet has forced us as individuals to exercise it again. Instead of dealing with an annoying neighbor who spies on everyone, we have thousands of neighbors who can stop by and tell us our house looks ugly.
Silencing someone is the equivalent of telling that person to shut up. It’s an emotionally charged moment, and onlookers will choose how they feel about it. Then, we’ll all move on.
Alex Jones will have that same ability. The people who like what he does and says will find ways to support him. People who don’t like him will continue to do that too.