The First Amendment died a little this past week, with attacks from both political ends.
Despicable conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones lost most of his social media platform — literally overnight — after Facebook, YouTube, Apple, LinkedIn and others pulled the plug on his digital existence in what appeared to be a coordinated takedown.
I can’t stand Alex Jones. He’s stated in the past that nobody died at Sandy Hook, and on several occasions accused the government of staging all sorts of atrocities, from the Pulse nightclub shooting to 9/11. The reckless lunacy Jones peddles would be laughable if it weren’t so hurtful.
The supportive arguments allowing Jones to become a digital unperson are pretty solid. These social media companies are privately owned, and individuals don’t have a right to utilize privately-owned infrastructure to exert a Constitutional right. I host a radio show, on which I am a benevolent dictator — able to end or reject listener phone calls at my whim. I would have it no other way.
While the legal lens seems fairly clear on the issue, the ethical lens is cloudy. These companies have known for years who Alex Jones is, yet allowed him to build his brand on their platforms. Other despicable and fringe players retain their brands unfettered, at least for the time being. These social media giants became behemoths by allowing society to migrate a significant portion of its discourse to them with an expectation we would be able to bring our fundamental rights along. We were wrong. To whatever extent the spirit of the First Amendment was carried into our social media life, it’s nothing more than an illusion now.
With over 200 million Facebook users in the United States, at some point the implementation of a private company’s policy feels more like population governance, and now we have a very small group deciding which ideas are unacceptable using a vaguely-defined societal threat. They have begun with an easy target — someone the rest of us are the least likely to defend — to protect us from “hate speech” on platforms we could easily choose to block, unfollow, or not follow in the first place. We now cannot be trusted with our own internal discretion.
Well guess what? There will always be weirdos beyond the boundary dividing acceptable and unacceptable thought. There will be eccentrics just inside the boundary. But is that boundary defined individually, or decided by an ad hoc committee of digital moguls? A healthy republic will defend the right to express indefensible ideas. Some of the loudest champions of “net neutrality” cheered the decision by a small handful of corporate CEO’s to not be neutral toward Alex Jones. First they came for the conspiracy theorists…
In a lesser-covered story, a recent Ipsos poll revealed that over 40 percent of self-identified Republicans believe “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” Hand me that Bill of Rights now, and put down the BIC lighters, Republicans. How did so many of my conservative friends allow CNN’s journalistic malpractice to anger them into becoming authoritarian? If anyone believes a head of state should have the power to silence dissenting voices, they have learned exactly nothing important from history. What other permanent civil rights will be abandoned over a temporary frustration?
CNN’s ratings recently landed behind HGTV, Food Network, Investigation Discovery, and Polka Legends. (All of that is true, except for the last one.) Really bad journalism tends to shut itself down. These Republicans need to love the First Amendment more than they dislike Jim Acosta.
Advocating the use of government power — or murky corporate decision-making — to designate different forms of speech, and the thoughts that speech carries, as undesirable or unacceptable is a frightening development.
Associated Press award-winning columnist Neal Larson of Idaho Falls is the author of “Living in Spin.” He is a conservative talk show host on KID Newsradio 106.3 and 92.1, and also at www.kidnewsradio.com. “The Neal Larson Show” can be heard weekday mornings from 8:00 to 10:00. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.