In August 2018, a series of internet giants including Facebook, Apple, YouTube, and Spotify banned content belonging to Alex Jones and his website Infowars. Infowars gets millions of visits a month, Donald Trump himself appeared on an Infowars broadcast during his 2016 election campaign, and Jones’ YouTube channel had over 2 million subscribers. It would be a grand understatement to call Jones a crank. He has spent decades pushing conspiracy theories from the absurd to the outright twisted and hateful. Perhaps most infamously, Jones pushed the theory that the Sandy Hook massacre (in 2012 Adam Lanza murdered 20 first-graders and six staff members of Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut) was an orchestrated hoax. Such rhetoric was not exactly harmless. Families of the victims have faced death threats and harassment from Jones’ minions (Jones is being sued for defamation by eight of the parents and a FBI agent who responded to the shooting). Jones’ banning therefore elicited little public sympathy and few rallied to the free speech banner. Yet such actions always come with an implicit warning that once enacted they have a tendency to metastasize.
Fast forward to October 2020. Just weeks before Election Day the New York Post published a front- page story about emails and alleged photos of Hunter Biden, the son of now president-elect Joe Biden. The emails dealt with Biden’s shady dealings with a Chinese energy company CEFC China. Twitter initially blocked the link to the article from being posted or even sent via direct message on the platform (the New York Post was locked out of its account for over a week). Facebook also reduced distribution of the story. The revelation was deemed probable Russian disinformation in a letter signed by 50 former intelligence agents- the letter read that the signees were ‘deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case.’ That theory was quickly absorbed by most TV networks which ended up not pursuing the story, though in the very same letter the intelligence officials admitted to having no solid evidence for the claim. The FBI has found no such evidence. In recent years, former intelligence officials, many of whom peddled the fiction of Iraq’s weapons programs in the lead-up to the U.S. led invasion back in 2003, have scored lucrative roles as TV pundits simply due to their current anti-Trump credentials. The seriousness of the charges against Biden remain unclear. Weeks after the story was broken, Biden announced he was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney for Delaware over $400,000 in undeclared income. There are reports suggesting the investigation may be more extensive than Biden claimed.
Big tech companies and TV news attempting to prevent the story from spreading, of course, had no real effect. The story was available on the New York Post’s webpage and plenty of other places. If anything, nowadays killing a known story only shines more light on it. Still it was obvious that Trump supporters would shout hypocrisy after years of news reporting speculated about Trump’s ties to the Russian government, with much of the reporting turning out to be bogus.
Meanwhile on December 9th, YouTube announced that going forward it would enforce what it calls its Presidential Election Integrity policy. A company statement described it as ‘meaning we remove content that misleads people by alleging that widespread fraud or error changed the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election uploaded on or after December 9.’ Trump and his lawyers’ crackpot assertions of hacked software and global communist plots to rig the election against him (while the Republican Party as a whole had a strong showing) is the stuff of psyche wards when it is not pure cynicism. This hardly nullifies the poisonous effects of censorship.
On one hand, it risks further radicalizing die-hard Trump voters who can clearly see the deck is stacked against them. Far worse is the banning of crazy narratives inevitably serves only to strengthen official narratives. An astute observer would have noticed that Trump was not the only ‘anti-establishment’ type painted with the Kremlin brush. In February 2020, it was reported that Russia was attempting to assist the presidential campaign of Berne Sanders. Sanders, a self-described socialist, was an early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Jill Stein, the 2016 Green Party candidate, faced the same accusations. Stein felt compelled to declare ‘I am not a Russian spy’ in October 2019 shortly after a bitter Hillary Clinton accused her of being a FSB agent.
This past November there was a movement to ban Abigail Shrier’s new book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. Amazingly, this effort had some support within the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU once defended the right of neo-Nazis to march through a Chicago suburb. Yet here the ACLU’s Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, Chase Strangio, tweeted ‘Abigail Shrier’s book is a dangerous polemic with a goal of making people not trans…Stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on.’ Going further, and inching toward Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, Grace Lavery, an English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tweeted ‘I DO encourage followers to steal Abigail Shrier’s book and burn it on a pyre’ (Lavery later claimed she was joking before proceeding to make a bizarrely arcane case for censoring the book). Amazon denied the publisher permission to run a sponsored ad on the site. The chain store Target pulled the book from its shelves before reversing amid a backlash.
Defenders of the companies resort to a legalistic reading of the First Amendment which states that the Amendment only applies to government censorship not the actions of private entities such as tech companies, newspapers, publishers, etc. After all, publishers and editors reject submitted work all the time. Indeed no one is under threat of arrest for saying anything. Still, it should be obvious that the spirit of the law that counts just as much as the letter. The logic of regulating speech always boils down to a version of the ‘shouting fire in a crowded theater’ idea, that the speech in question will cause a greater, unnecessary harm. It is worth remembering that the ‘shouting fire’ example goes back to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919 when the court was deciding if the government could imprison Charles Schenk, a general secretary of the Socialist Party, for distributing a leaflet against involuntary conscription. Holmes wrote in the decision that upheld Schenk’s conviction under the Espionage Act:
We admit that, in many places and in ordinary times,
The defendants, in saying all that was said in the circular,
would have been within their constitutional rights. But the
character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which
it is done. The most stringent protection of free speech would not
protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.
It does not even protect a man from an injunction against uttering words
that may have all the effect of force.
The premise of the argument is the concept of the exceptional time. The true and obvious implication is that times will always be exceptional. This is why we now have liberals siding with intelligence agencies, online mobs striving to ban books, and tech companies acting as official fact-checkers. It is far better to recall the words of George Orwell: ‘If large numbers of people believe in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it. But if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.’ Protecting inconvenient minorities has always been a core progressive demand, and by definition so has protecting free speech. To have again to fight for it is both tragic and necessary.