Alex Jones, Infowars, and the new public sphere

Alex Jones is not a journalist. Free speech has limits and is rooted in reality, not theory. Technology companies have changed their tune. Laws - and perhaps regulators - will have to catch up. In the new public sphere, it is a few companies, not governments, who act as censors.

Through these fluid and arguable propositions the censoring of Infowars - an anti-establishment website founded and fronted by former radio personality Alex Jones - can begin to be understood. Let's take them in turn.

Journalism encompasses many styles and moralities, but few of them have ever been so elastic as to embrace the practices of Jones and Infowars.

Of course, reporters and hacks from time immemorial have lied, got things wrong, and spread hatred. But the specific method and motivation of Jones, which is to offer a counter-blast to majority opinion and build a community online, does not in my view count as journalism. Not even "commentary".

Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist. His relationship with the truth has long been that of a lawnmower with grass.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption US radio host Alex Jones speaking to crowds outside the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio

He has caused terrible suffering. It is hard to imagine the pain endured by Veronique De La Rosa and Leonard Pozner, whose 6 year-old son Noah was killed at Sandy Hook. But to think that they have been targeted by online bullies, and suffered death threats, after Alex Jones put about the idea that they had killed their boy is just unconscionable. (They are now undertaking defamation proceedings; Jones is counter-suing for $100,000 in costs).

The edges of freedom

That, however, is a moral position. Ethics is morality in practice. How does the cruelty of Alex Jones affect journalistic ethics?

It depends on your view of free speech. Free speech, being a branch of liberty, is a function of experience and experiment. Some people believe there should be no limits to it at all. Naturally, I don't take a position here on where the limits of free speech should be; but I will point out that democracies have tended to enact laws to curb its occasionally harmful consequences.

Twitter won't ban InfoWars' Alex Jones

YouTube, Facebook and iTunes drop InfoWars

These laws have adapted, and been adopted by various people at various time according to circumstance. The edges of these laws are spaces and places contested by brave campaigners, muck-rakers, and idiots alike.

And the reality of free speech is that it is rooted in specific habits, situations, and times, and people who hold a particular view at a particular time are liable to change that view, if the facts change.

Technology companies used to talk in utopian terms about their capacity to spread freedom, connect the world and so on. Some still do. Most of those based in Silicon Valley emerged from a libertarian worldview.

But as experience of their impact in the real world has accumulated, so the idealism has diminished (if not evaporated), and so, now, the approach to freedom - and specifically that of Alex Jones - has been updated.

Step by step

Those who have censored Alex Jones have changed their view - and done so at the end of a long process. Two years ago the likes of Facebook and Twitter were adamant that they were not media companies; that is, they did not strain into the domain of editorial judgements, sorry, journalism.

That claim was always naïve and cowardly. Now it's exposed as false, too. Over the past few years, social media companies have employed thousands of people, called moderators, to enforce editorial standards of behaviour.

Twitter's founder, Jack Dorsey, tweeted that he did not want his service - which has not banned Jones - to become "a service that's constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction".

Make no mistake. That is exactly what those who have banned Jones have become. Their personal views, even if discussed in a Boardroom, have created a policy through subjective assessments, which has then been enforced through the subjective application of agreed criteria.

When Mark Zuckerberg was consulted about the decision on Jones, as he presumably was, he wouldn't have said "Do please check what the algorithm makes of it all". He would have thought, perhaps as a father, that someone who has caused bereaved parents to go into hiding was not someone his platform should help.

Twitter describes its rules as "A Living Document". Key word, that: "living". Those who have censored Alex Jones this week have done so because the so-called policies they have arrived at, over a long period of time and through sometimes arbitrary choices, are a reflection of the lived experience of those who built them. And the lives of Silicon Valley types suggest that Alex Jones is a nasty piece of work.

New rules, eventually

Now that they are clearly making editorial judgements - while, remarkably, pretending not to - it is abundantly clear that regulators and lawmakers will jump on this as yet more reason to act.

Note that Sharon White, the Chief Executive of Ofcom, wrote in The Times on 13 July that social media companies will have to be regulated. Expect to hear more on this from her in the coming months, because it was a significant intervention for her to make.

Ofcom doesn't have the power to regulate this terrain as yet, and isn't seeking it. Granting such powers would require primary legislation in any case. And it is also a practical nightmare. One consequence of this week is that it radically strengthens the case for new laws, even if to encourage new regulation.

Alex Jones has many fans. He is a divisive character, repulsive to some, and prophetic to others. The controversy around his being denied a platform by huge technology companies is significant not because of what it says about them, but because of what it says about us.

Of course, he still has a voice. He can still use his own website and other channels to disseminate the Infowars worldview. And private companies will always make careful decisions about how best to protect their reputations and integrity. It's just that right now, a few such companies have extraordinary and unprecedented power and influence.

In just a few years, less than a blip in human history, the public sphere has been completely re-invented. It is now not powerful states, but big private companies who, despite their promise to make the world more open, are associated with censorship.

To navigate the coming era, the question we must ask is not "Is Alex Jones bad?" or even "Who should speak?", but "Who controls our freedom to speak?".

If you're interested in issues such as these, please follow me on Twitter or Facebook; and also please subscribe to The Media Show podcast from Radio 4. I'm grateful for all constructive feedback. Thanks.

More on this story