Supporting fact over falsehood
Conspiracy theories and other untruths have no place on the internet. Social networks should defend real freedom of speech
An interesting debate about free speech is unfolding over the notorious right-wing internet troll Alex Jones and his Infowars conspiracy channel. He and his site have been banned by Facebook, Apple and Youtube — but, controversially, not by Twitter.
Jones is a divisive figure. He is loved by a large clique of rightwingers who believe what he spouts. But it is patent nonsense for anyone who reads and watches the news.
In the past few months, Jones’s factually untrue ranting has become the epicentre of a debate about freedom of speech on social media.
Free speech should be protected, goes the mantra most right-thinking people agree on, often citing the famous quote attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (This quote is itself controversial. Some dispute whether he said it or whether it was said about him.)
But what happens if free speech is inflammatory, or just plain wrong?
That’s the problem with Infowars — the information on it is not true. The site has denied the Sandy Hook school massacre and the Holocaust. An example of Jones’s convoluted logic is his attack on David Hogg — a survivor of this year’s school shooting in Parkland in the US — calling for better gun control: “The Nazis did wear armbands, David Hogg wears one. The Nazis were a youth movement, they didn’t want the guns. And so if the shoe fits, wear it.” Huh?
Facebook finally took down his pages last week — only after CEO Mark Zuckerberg had humiliated himself by defending the rights of Holocaust deniers in a now infamous podcast in July. That he’s Jewish is beside the point, but should heighten his perception of the hurtfulness of such denialism. Facebook has been allowing such hate speech and other drivel on its pages and news feed for years.
Zuckerberg said: “I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But … I don’t believe our platform should take that down, because I think there are things different people get wrong. I don’t think they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
That must be one of the dumbest things ever said by a CEO.
Apple and Spotify removed Jones’s podcasts, and Youtube eventually took down his videos. But Twitter said he had not violated its terms and conditions — until CNN’S Oliver Darcy pointed out how many times he had got it wrong. So Twitter suspended him for a week. Really. A week.
The problem faced by social networks is their fear of a backlash from US conservatives. It also relates to the amount of traffic they seem to get from these posts.
Free speech is important, as we know from years of apartheid censorship. But blatantly false conspiracy theories are not.
Social networks need to find their backbones, establish a moral core and stand up for real freedom of speech.