The future of free speech in social media

September 7, 2018

About a month ago, far-right radio host, conspiracy theorist and internet sensation Alex Jones suddenly found his entire media empire purged from the internet. As a result of some private and collective deliberation, most major media outlets united in a decision to scrub their sites of all content directly related to Jones and his infamous radio show “InfoWars.” These webpages had individually accrued hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers prior to their deletion.

Such events like this are divisive in the context of ongoing social arguments, most specifically the ever adjusting question of censorship and what Jones’ case means for freedom of speech.

The companies in question were completely right to take the action they did based solely on the matter of enforcing their terms of service. Jones has a well-documented and violent history of hate speech towards immigrants, minorities, the LGBT community, Muslims and others. Anyone that is sincerely concerned with positive social progress would agree that the exile of Alex Jones may be more of a blessing than a curse in the current political climate.

However, I am less content with the precedent this may set for the censorship of the exchange of ideas. The reality is, an increasingly large percentage of our serious discussions and political skirmishes are waged on the very same social media platforms of which Jones is no longer a part. Of course, he has the opportunity to take his controversial opinions elsewhere online without any legal restraint (and he has), but in practicality, Jones has lost his ability to speak freely online in the same circles as the rest of us.

It wouldn’t be altogether unfounded, despite being terribly misguided, to dismiss this as an act of direct censorship by the big bad left-leaning companies of the unexpecting and innocent right-leaning political activist. In fact, Twitter, the social media site most well-known for its often unexplained and seemingly politically-motivated bans, peculiarly abstained from taking any action against Jones or “InfoWars” at first, claiming that he hadn’t violated any of their policies. Despite my suspicions with that claim, it certainly proves to me that at least some of these social media platforms took the deliberation seriously.

Have we given social media sites too much power over free speech? Should it be the right of a shared monopoly to decide who does and does not have a voice on the internet? I think these questions get to the heart of a controversy that begs, impossibly, to reconcile the concerns of victims of hate speech, first amendment rights and the rights of corporations to police their customers. In my opinion, this particular instance has established itself to be a net positive. Although hate speech is not yet legally classified as unprotected speech, it could never be a bad thing for less of it to exist. The companies involved acted upon their terms of service and provided evidence to support these actions. In fact, much of me wants to say they stepped up to address an issue where legislation has failed so far.

As social media interfaces further monopolize our time spent interacting with each other, we need to treat situations like this carefully and look to precedent. The suppression of voices should never be taken lightly, and the very real threat of hate speech cannot become an excuse for rash decisions. At the very least, these sites need to be held accountable for who they do and don’t let speak if their mission is truly to facilitate conversation and change.

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