Free Speech, Alex Jones, and Facebook

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.

One thought on “Free Speech, Alex Jones, and Facebook

  1. As a person who has never even had a profile in facebook, I find myself in agreement with you. That might of course be due to my limited experience of the so called social media. In general I do not find it that social at all.

    As to the comment that “is Facebook so powerful that it shouldn’t be treated like any other private company?” I would say, that it is very hard to put any measurement on this issue. You live in a big country and I live in a small country, but what about the really big nations like China, India and Indonesia? The concept of national level and amount of people is totally different when there are only 5 million of us Finns in comparrison to the amount of Chinese.

    The freedom of self expression is a value we should hold dear, not because some constitution says so, but because we do realize, that limiting the rights of public speech, we may end up into a society that does not allow any criticism and does not repair the wrongs said society has. Recognizing there may be a problem is the first step on a road to make it right. However, claiming something is a problem, has the burden of proof on it. This leads us to a more complex problem of people not in general being very good at analyzing reality aruond them and often falling back on their cultural heritage, religious indoctrination and other forms prejudice and of solving complex problems by gut instinct and intuition.

    It seems today freedom of speech is mostly cried out as a fundamental right, by people who have very little appriciation of human rights. Who would use their own freedom to directly, or indirectly harm other people. Who see it as their own priviledge, rather than actual human rights issue, even when they try to hide behind it being their right, rather than a priviledge. Such people who would want to proclaim their “truth” about any issue, but not suffer any critique to their opinions, as they often enough have not very logically based the “truth” they are out to claim. Thus any different opinion is often refferred by them as cencorship. Freedom of speech is a liberty, and it gives the citizen of an open society power, and as with power always, there follows responsibility. How could we teach people to become responsible, even when there is no punishment (in this or the next world) for any unethical act?

    Is the social media actually a public forum? Did not every user personally select with whom they want to interact, or not? Regardless of the amount of people, such a media is in my book a private method of conversing regardless of who provides for it. Does any social media platform have a responsibility to do any moral, ethical or even journalistic cencorship on the rumours spread in that media? Certainly, the modern people are in increasing numbers getting their information about what is happening through their social media pubbles. To me, this development seems to make stupid and ignorant people liable to prefer confirmation of their own biases also more voulnerable to less accurate picture of reality…

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