The social media banshee screamed for Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos earlier this month and no one seems to be too upset about it.
On May 2nd, Facebook Inc announced that it would be dropping both of these far-right “activist/journalists,” as well as a few others, from the platform for having violated the company’s policies on hate speech and promoting violence.
These things happen. One day you’re making a soapbox show, the next, it’s making a show out of running you off the soapbox.
Especially when you make yourself as big and easy a target as Jones and Yiannopoulos make of themselves. Doing things like framing school shootings as “false flag attacks” (Jones) or thanking Catholic priests for teaching you to give good head (Yiannopoulos) do not improve your social credit score by much among many, and particularly among businesses. What kind of self-concerned company would allow freaks like these to spread their strange brands of hate on their platform? That’s bad PR. That doesn’t look good.
“But what about our ‘Freedom of Speech?!’” the Libertarians out there are probably wondering. “As Americans, in America our speech is supposed to be protected from this kind of censorship.”
And they’re right. Kind of. You can and should be able to say whatever the fuck you please in this country and no one can or should be able to do a damned thing about it (unless it’s a direct threat). Even far-right lunatics like Jones and Yiannopoulos deserve that protection because, once freedom of speech starts to slip along the fringes, it’s often a short road to a dark place.
The problem is, Facebook and all of the other popular media outlets that support independent content, like YouTube and Spotify, are private companies. Jones, Yiannopoulos, you and I and everyone else who uses them is a customer accessing their product. We are but humble guests in their cyber households and so we must abide by their rules.
And recently, they’ve taken to cutting people from their platforms entirely, slicing them away like unsightly ideological moles. This is a private business, after all and, just like that cake maker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, Facebook reserves the right to deny service to whomever they damn-well please.
Even if the service they offer isn’t quite as tangible as a wedding cake.
That should throw up red flags for everyone reading this, no matter your political or ideological bent. Because, as easy as it is to roll your eyes when someone starts yammering off about the First Amendment, it’s really an important thing to yammer about. It protects everyone in this country — not just the crazies and not just the average citizens.
By contrast, private companies are not set up to protect The People like our government *generally is. Private companies are set up to make a profit. Putting corporations in charge of censoring the main platforms of public discourse is about as safe as hiring John Wayne Gacey as your date-night babysitter.
It won’t end well.
But what can we do? We can’t help that these are the platforms for independent content that have gotten popular. It just happened. We didn’t ask for Facebook to dominate the social media market — they just rose to the top. And now they own the public square. Or at least one of the public squares. Twitter Inc owns another, YouTube owns another and so on — each with their own local rules and regulations concerning what’s acceptable and allowed and what will get you banned or silenced. Like little kingdoms, each lorded over by their own greedy board of businessmen.
As a society, we’ve essentially handed the power of censorship over to the private sector. And they are putting that power to use.
Why do they censor anyone? Why don’t they just let the system run itself, let The People be and let them interact virtually however they choose to do so?
Because, of course, it’s not that simple. Facebook has been forced to take censorship actions against ISIS and other terrorist groups because they were using the platform to organize attacks or acts of violence. Twitter locks accounts that are openly extremist and/or spreading messages of hate and violence. Youtube has even had to remove videos of people eating laundry detergent, because kids were dying from that “Tide Pod Challenge” phenom.
There are legitimate reasons for these companies to be censoring some content, sometimes, in some circumstances. Particularly when they represent a violent threat. But when a journalist, media figure, company or celebrity gets the axe for having an ideological stance, things get a lot trickier and a lot stickier.
Which brings us back to Jones and Yiannopoulos.
Facebook banned both men as well as the professional troll, Laura Loomer, the anti-Semitic religious leader, Louis Farrakhan, a white nationalist named Paul Nehlan and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson. Allegedly these media figures violated Facebook’s rules regarding “hate speech” and “violence.”
“We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology,” said a Facebook representative in a statement, regarding the bans. “The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts today.”
It’s still unclear what straw actually broke the camel’s back, as Facebook has not provided details on why they finally decided to rip these figures off of the platform. But it seems like the company is trying to be firmer with their own service terms.
This is not the first time that some of these people have been booted from some online platform. In August of 2018 Jones’ show InfoWars was almost simultaneously dropped from Facebook, iTunes and Youtube. And Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter in 2016, which resulted in a drawn-out lawsuit against the social media company. Yiannopoulos, has even been banned from the digital currency exchange, Coinbase, because… well, they didn’t like him.
Jones all but disappeared from the public eye as a result, and Yiannopoulos’ influence has been severely limited since his Twitter expulsion. Now, with Facebook dropping their personal and professional profiles as well, their voices stand to be silenced even more. And if this continues, if more companies follow suit and start to drop Jones and Yiannopoulos from their platforms, they may disappear entirely.
For many, that would be happy news. Because fuck those guys. Their hateful, conspiratorial, extremist voices weren’t welcome, anyway. Good riddance.
But, it’s not happy news. It’s extremely disconcerting. Try and look past the fact that these people are widely disliked, forget the things you disagree with them on — their voices are being systematically quashed, along with their ideals and their opinions and if it can happen to them, it can happen to others. It can happen to your favorite media outlet, journalist, activist or celebrity.
It can even happen to you.