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Banning bizarre speech limits free speech for all

It’s just gotten a little easier for the government to control the weather.

Social media sites moved en masse to ban Alex Jones, the self-parodic conspiracy theorist. Jones is a poisonous toad who leveraged his compellingly ridiculous persona and bizarre rants into considerable notoriety and a lucrative dietary supplement empire.

He doesn’t represent anything new. We’ve always had our share of paranoid weirdos. Before the age of social media, they relied on publishing underground newsletters and handing out leaflets and the like to get their message out.

What Jones has done is take a cracked worldview that long predated him … and shrewdly marketed it using technologies that afford him a reach unimaginable to his daft forebears.

This is a significant downside of the new media environment, which is more open than ever before. But banning Jones, especially in the manner it was done, has worrisome ramifications for free speech.

Of course, the social media companies aren’t government entities. They can silence whomever they like without violating the First Amendment. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

The power of social media platforms is enormous. They are … the public square. Facebook affects the fate of publishers with every change to its algorithms, and has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to make media entities march to its beat.

This suggests that these companies have a responsibility to give the widest possible latitude to free speech. They certainly shouldn’t make sweeping decisions, like the swift, collective action against Jones, in an arbitrary manner.

Everyone has known about Jones for years. It can’t be that suddenly, after propagating stupid lies for decades, he was discovered to be grossly violating the guidelines of almost every important social media platform at the same moment.

Just a few weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg told an interviewer that he didn’t want to take down Holocaust deniers because it’s not his role to be an arbiter of truth.

There’s no way to square that view and the defenestration of Alex Jones.

What happened? The reaction against Zuckerberg’s interview was harsh, and the pressure to move against Jones intense. So this was clearly, in part, a political decision by the social media companies moving as a herd. That’s a problem, especially when the rules are fuzzy and subject to selective enforcement. The rationale for the ban is that Jones was guilty of hate speech, or … using “dehumanizing language.”

Since there is considerable sentiment on the left for the proposition that using disfavored pronouns for transgender people is dehumanizing, and an undeservedly well-respected outfit, the Southern Poverty Law Center, has a mission of labeling conservative organizations “hate groups,” the possibility of a slippery slope is real.

If social media platforms are going down this road, they should have a much less subjective standard. A clear line would be the one that Zuckerberg enunciated in his controversial interview, which is to act to stop incitement, but otherwise allow users to post as they see fit. My colleague David French suggests another bright line: banning users who are guilty of libel. This standard might bounce Jones for his monstrous lie about Sandy Hook families having faked the massacre of their children.

The lonely social media dissenter regarding Jones is Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who declined to ban him. He is getting excoriated for saying it’s important to stand by straightforward, impartial principles, and that journalists should refute the likes of Jones “so people can form their own opinions.”

This is what used to be a liberal chestnut, that the best way to combat speech is with other speech. Now, it is considered a hateful, retrograde point of view. We won’t miss Alex Jones when he’s gone, but the banning almost certainly won’t end with him.

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