Alex Jones and the intolerance paradox
Alex Jones is, without a doubt, a perverse individual: a man determined to cause as much damage as possible; a tireless self-promotor prepared to lie or twist the truth to his own ends. Somebody most people would go to any length to avoid being seen in public with.
His ultraconservative ideas and capacity for inventing fake news and absurd conspiracy theories have led him on numerous occasions to do things any normal person would reject out of hand: think of the dumbest conspiracy theories: the anti-vaccination movement, the moon-landing was faked, weather warfare, the white genocide, or government participation in all types of attacks or shootings, this guy has them all and has no problem accusing the parents of the children murdered at Sandy Hook of being paid by the government for something that, according to him, never happened. Despite all this, or possibly thanks to it, his page, InfoWars, has more than ten million monthly visits and 2.4 million subscribers on YouTube.
On July 24, it seems the social networks finally turned on Alex Jones: YouTube eliminated four InfoWars videos, prevented it from broadcasting live and issued a first warning to the channel. On July 27, Facebook suspended Alex Jones’ profile for 30 days and removed the same videos YouTube had, citing violations of Facebook’s hate speech and bullying rules. On August 5, Apple also removed five Infowars podcasts from iTunes. The next day, Facebook removed a further four pages related to Alex Jones, saying they violated its violence and hate speech policies. The same day, YouTube removed the InfoWars channel entirely. Unsurprisingly, Jones has denounced this as persecution, using the only channel now open to him to do so: Twitter.
The ongoing exclusion of Alex Jones and Infowars from social platforms is reminiscent of previous actions against other white supremacists, along with neo-Nazi pages in August 2017, and deserves reflection. On an internet where activity is increasingly monopolized by a few platforms, the possibility of excluding certain ideas or groups from the conversation is tempting and possible, with all that entails. In practice, YouTube, Facebook or Apple are not acting in response to any judicial requirement when they block the likes of Alex Jones, but simply because he’s breaking their rules. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States may guarantee free speech but that doesn’t mean a social network is breaking the law if it throws you out, instead, it’s saying it’s not comfortable with its platform being used to express certain ideas it doesn’t agree with.
This is all pretty much in line with the paradox of tolerance outlined by Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, who argued in “The Open Society and its Enemies” that if societies do not impose limits to tolerance, their ability to be tolerant will finally be destroyed by the intolerant, in other words, defending tolerance means not tolerating intolerance.
“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”
Banning ideas from the internet is a dangerous move, without doubt, and even more so when those platforms are controlled by a few companies. Furthermore, doing so in a seemingly arbitrary manner, or based on unclear and rules and policies open to interpretation is an added problem effectively making these platforms judges and jury, as well as censors, de facto dictators unanswerable to anybody. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has given much thought to these issues, cites the Manila Principles on the Responsibility of Intermediaries as a way to avoid errors and ensure the transparency of decisions to exclude certain views from public debate.
If I am honest, I would say I prefer an internet without the likes of Alex Jones. That said, we should remember that in some countries, not known for their respect for freedom, other ideas are expelled from online discussion, ideas that I may share, leaving me open to charges of hypocrisy if I defend banning only those views I disagree with. On another level, while not strictly speaking comparable, I routinely eliminate comments from my website, not so much because they contradict me, but because of the way they are expressed, as part of a crusade against my ideas — which has only happened three times over the last decade — but that each time left me feeling uncomfortable writing on my own page. I fully understand that a social network, a video repository or a podcast platform may not be comfortable serving as a vehicle for certain ideas and why it might decide to exclude them, in which case, I think the best thing would be to ask them to clearly lay out what is allowed and what is not, and then apply those principles transparently.
Freedom of expression is a delicate issue, and one that is more complex than it might seem at first. We would all like to exclude idiots from the conversation, but we would also like to get along with who decides who is an idiot and who is not. When being excluded from a handful of sites like YouTube, Facebook, iTunes and Twitter effectively means expulsion from the Internet, we risk ending up like China, where the government decides who and what is allowed on the internet, without consulting anybody, without asking the public and without worrying about possible errors or over-zealousness. And of course, even in some democracies where there is no real separation of powers, the courts will act in the interests of government.
To be honest, the decision to exclude Alex Jones isn’t really the problem, but it’s certainly an interesting starting point for a discussion.
(En español, aquí)