Alex Jones’ Infowars got banned from Youtube, Apple and Facebook all in one day. His followers are outraged and scream censorship. His many enemies are celebrating the move as a victory for truth. What is going on? Is this just a perfectly legitimate example of free association by private companies, or are we dealing with something else?
Libertarians don’t tend to think of censorship by private institutions as a violation of freedom of speech. A private person, or company, should be free to ban or endorse any kind of opinion he or she likes. This is technically absolutely correct, and an important point to make. It is, however, questionable whether this argument holds when we are talking about big companies like Google or Facebook.
Could there be a legitimate reason to ban Alex Jones? I have known Infowars since the early 2000s. Back then, Jones was the only political commentator I knew off who was already publishing his opinions as videos online. This was years before youtube became popular, when the internet was still very slow and expensive. Jones deserves some credit for very early recognizing the full potential of the internet.
He seemed to have a more or less classical liberal mindset. His videos were hugely critical of the state. The 1993 massacre in Waco Texas was portrait by him as a clear sign that the government had declared war on its citizens. Inforwars, and its sister side Prison Planet, argued that we are going rapidly into a massive police state. Knowing the history of western states since, it is difficult to argue that he was completely wrong about that. Already back then, he clearly seem to have a very conspiratorial view of the world. The new world order, as he called it, was a conspiracy of a small elite of people to enslave the rest of us.
Although I was a lot more susceptible to this simplistic conspiratorial viewpoint back in the day, I always thought that Jones was slightly nuts. But at first I thought he was nuts in a good way. At least he saw the state as a big problem. This was something I did not hear from many people in Germany at the time. So, even if slightly wrong, he felt like a little bit of fresh air.
I particularly liked that Infowars was still asking critical questions about 911. Being the conspiracy theorist that he has always been, he openly advocated that it was the US government itself that was behind the attacks. Again, I was never fully convinced by that, and these theories have now long been debunked as complete nonsense, but at least the conspiracy theorists were still asking critical questions.
That was better than what I heart from most commentators, who had collectively lost their marvels, rallying blindly behind the US flag. Conspiracy or not, the inside job theorists were among the few people, who saw correctly that the government was abusing these terrorist attacks to massively infringe on our liberty. They also saw clearly that going to war against terrorism was a terrible idea.
Since that time, Infowars has of course become hugely successful. Alex now reaches millions of people regularly. He therefore has the power to influence the opinions of a significantly big crowd. But he clearly has not grown very much when it comes to his theories of how the world works. His view on politics is now more conspiratorial than ever, and the theories seem to have got more crazy rather than less.
In my view, he has gone from someone who I thought was valuable, because he was roughly advocating the right things for the wrong reasons, to somehow who is a real liability to people critical of statism. His crazy theories make critics of the status quo look bad. Especially since the rise of Donald Trump in politics, Infowars has become absolutely excruciating. Nowadays, I can never manage to view more than a minute or so of his crazy rants. And ranting is basically all he does. He seems to be one of those people who think that voicing an argument loudly somehow makes it better. He has also become an outright cheerleader of the a state run by Donald Trump.
Why am I saying all this? I am saying it to make the point that I have very little motivation to defend Infowars. I am not a fan. I even think Alex Jones has become a real liability. I also find it hard to defend him with the notion that he is attacked, because the elite fears the truth. The risk that his crazy conspiracy theories about how the world works will become mainstream when people are exposed to them is rather slim.
But I am indeed concerned about his ban from social media. After all, he does reach enough people to at least disrupt the official narrative. I am concerned that Infowars might just be the first to go. Well, it is probably too late for that. But at least one of the first big ones to go. Much more reasonable commentators might be next. In fact, a lot of libertarians are already under attack. Defending these social media giants with the argument that they are private companies is quite wrong, or at the very least naive. There are two flaws in that argument.
Firstly, just because something is private does not mean that liberty minded people cannot have an opinion about it. This is the opposite of true. Capitalism works only as far as consumers make informed choices. It is not just acceptable to criticize private companies, it is important.
The reason why amazon works is, because they have a comprehensive review system build into the platform. Everyone is free to review products and sellers. Without this private review system, amazon would probably not be very save to use. The whole reason why capitalism works is, because it allows for quick corrections of mistakes via market feedback. If a company engages is unwanted policies, everyone has a right, and even a duty, to criticize it.
The second mistake in the reasoning that we don’t need to be worried about private censorship is that it is highly questionable how private these companies really are. The whole argument assumes that Apple, Google, Twitter and Facebook are completely free to choose their company’s policies. It assumes that everything we are witnessing is free from state interference.
But very few things are free from government interference these days. We do not have fully private property rights, in which owners can simply do as they please with their belongings. Most usage of property is highly regulated, making it a mix of private and public. And that is certainly true for companies like Facebook and Google.
We don’t know how much they are being bullied behind closed doors. But conspiracy theories are not necessary. What is out in the open is enough to see that there is a lot of pressure on them to comply with the interests of the government. The history of censorship on platforms like Facebook clearly shows that they only started editing political content once they got pressured by the state.
In Germany, Facebook was first attacked by the government when people started to criticize the wave of immigrants coming into the country. These attacks at question were undoubtedly degrading and aggressive. One would hope that a civilized society would naturally criticism, and even ostracize, extreme xenophobes like these people. The comments, however, were made on the private newsfeed of Facebook users.
Germany is not a free country. There are many restrictions on what can be expressed publicly, and even privately, to other people. Therefore, the government in Berlin wanted Facebook to stop users from making such comments. But when it first approached Facebook, and demanded for the company to became an enforcer of German censorship laws, Facebook reacted completely disinterested. As a result, nothing happened.
Being a US company, Zuckerberg was clearly confused by what the government expected him to do. Facebook at the time simply did not have any editorial unit, specialized in policing political opinions. Why would they spend money on something that would make their users less happy? The whole business model was to provide a social network for as many people as possible.
But Facebook was about to find out that you cannot just ignore a state. Politicians started to make sure that Facebook understood that it could not simply reject an offer from the mafia. They threatened Facebook with fines of millions of Euros for each and every single violation of a not deleted post in violation with German censorship laws. In other words the government threatened to destroy Facebook in Germany, if the company did not comply with whatever editorial wishes the state had. It was only after that threat that Facebook become an editor of political content.
This shows very clearly that these companies are not free to simply determine their own policies. It is very naive to believe that governments will just sit there and let a private organization challenge the foundations of their power. Ideas are very powerful. No one who wants to stay in power can afford to lose control over the narrative of public debate. Any state, no matter how liberal on the surface, has always had effective policies to influence, and outright control, the production and distribution of ideas.
Most states therefore still have outright speech prohibition. Most states also still have a media that is openly run by the government. No government currently allows a truly free education system. The difference between dictatorships and democracies is that the former are more overt in their attempt to control ideas. Democracies on the other hand have found ways to control opinions through the backdoor. Interventions are usually portrait as quality controls rather than outright censorship. Someone needs to make sure that schools and universities are “quality” institutions. Someone needs to make sure that citizens are not mislead by “fake news” from evil players.
Historically, laws have not been effective limits to the power of governments. If there ever was an idea that deserved the label naive than it is that governments can be controlled by laws, laws that have to be enforced by the state itself. What does put a lit on the power of governments is the popularity of certain policies. The physical force of compliance by the masses is very important to every state. In democracies, politicians are also at risk of not being re-elected. The reason why there is still free speech in the US is not because the government cannot break the constitution. If the first amendment to the US constitution was unpopular, it would be gone in a heart beat, or simply be ignored.
When faced with popular laws which cannot be ignored, governments often will prosecute opponents for the violation of other laws. The people in power tend to not care why an opponent is fined or goes to jail, as long as he is knocked out. Given the huge quantity of laws in existence, almost everyone is always in violation of some law. Does anyone believe that Julian Assange is trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy because of rape allegations? Maybe, just maybe, his imprisonment has something to do with the fact that he was exposing the corruptions and criminality of western governments.
And does anyone believe that Zuckerberg really helped to rig the last US elections? The real reason why he was dragged before congress is, to intimidate him. The message was clear, we, meaning the US government, are not able to directly censor Facebook because of the first amendment. But make no mistake, if you don’t play ball with us, we will get you for something else.
It is very obvious, that the social media giants are not private in the sense that they can freely determine their policies. They are heavily bullied by governments to comply with the needs of the powerful. Sure, one might criticize them for not putting up too much of a fight. But the real villain is the government. Infowars being banned by independent companies on the very same day is hardly a coincidence. It serves as another evidence that these companies are not independent, private players.
And if governments think, they cannot yet get away with outright banning an unwanted commentator, they will secretly ban the opinions by making sure that posts do not appear in the newsfeed of followers. They also often sabotage the funding of unwanted organizations. Libertarians like the Ron Paul Institute, Anti-war.com or Scott Horton are already targeted like that. All have seen the views of their posts on social media deteriorate recently without formerly loosing any followers.
So no, what we are dealing with is not simply private companies using their right to free association. What we are dealing with is a classic attempt by governments to win control over the distribution of ideas.
The solution to all of this can therefore not be to demand more government interference. This would assumes that the problem is the social media companies themselves. But all the evidence points to the fact that it is the government bullying of these companies that is the real problem. And this is not going to change, no matter who the most popular social media platform is going to be.
Any company, with a headquarters and centralized servers, will get under enormous government pressure if it actually becomes big enough to make a difference. The only solution seems to be to create more decentralized platforms for the distribution of ideas. In that case, the state would need to go after everyone individually, which is much more difficult to do. Decentralization is therefore the only way to escape the bullying. But it is easier said than done. States are a hard problem.