I find the mass banning of Alex Jones of Infowars from nearly every online media platform to be chilling. Sure, the case can be made that InfoWars is the source of a lot of crap online, conspiracy theories and lowest common denominator misinformation that contributes to our dark times. That’s what makes it so easy to overlook the seriousness of the current situation.
This past Monday, Apple, Facebook, Google’s YouTube, and even LinkedIn all banned Jones’ InfoWars from their platforms. Twitter is expected to follow suit. This effectively muzzles Jones, preventing his video podcast from reaching the mass audiences he’d been reaching before. Sure, he still has his web site—for now—but without YouTube, he’ll have to put together a complex and expensive streaming video solution to replace it.
The new media has long been touted as the great equalizer that puts everyone from the lone blogger to the New York Times on a level playing field in terms of being able to speak to the world at large. But that’s not exactly true because we’re all ultimately dependent on a network of a few large tech companies for that platform. Sure, you can publish a podcast, but without iTunes or Google Play’s podcast directory, hardly anyone will find it. Yes, you can publish blog posts on your web site, but without Facebook or Twitter how will you promote it? And God help you if Google removes you from their search results. You’ll be effectively disappeared.
We used to say that, properly speaking, censorship was when government restricted your right to free speech, not private citizens. After all, we said, you don’t have the right to force anyone to listen to you or to give you a platform. But in an age where our ability to connect with anyone beyond the small number of people we are physically present to each day depends on the opaque policies of a few giant corporations maybe our thinking should change.
Jones was targeted because of his alleged hate speech. But more and more people each day are being declared to be engaging in hate speech. There are many, many people who believe that Catholics who insist that marriage is between one man and one woman are engaging in hate speech. People who insist on the biological reality that there only two sexes are regaulr accused of hate speech. It’s not even a question anymore. Even conservatives with public profiles often soft shoe around it. And when we witness the increasing public attacks on conservatives—like the harassment of Trump administration officials or even conservative writers in restaurants or other public spaces—it can’t be long before the demands for censorship expand the circle well beyond Alex Jones.
In reporting on the Alex Jones situation, Casey Newton of The Verge reports that while Apple’s removal of Jones’ podcast from iTunes was likely the catalyst for all the other tech companies’ subsequent actions, they don’t want to give Apple too much credit. After all, Jones’ iOS app is still in the App Store, presumably because there aren’t the same hate speech provision on apps as there are for podcasts. And Newton says that must change. He must be silenced by any means possible.
It used to be that the main concern for our human rights came from oppressive governments, but now more than ever our rights can be curtailed by powerful corporations who have increasing control over vast aspects of our lives and know more details of our lives than ever before.
Maybe we should all be concerned about the new threats to our rights that come from corporations. Maybe we need to say that the Bill of Rights doesn’t just put curbs on government’s ability to restrict our rights, but on corporations too.
(N.B. I’m wondering where all those progressives who—during the Occupy Wall Street days—rejected powerful corporations and demanded curbs on their power over us have gone now that their ire has turned toward someone whose ideology they oppose. Maybe this is a place where conservatives and liberals can make common cause.)