From NFL players taking a knee to Roseanne Barr’s tweets to Infowars conspiracies — yes, it’s 2018, and no, we’re not done talking about what the First Amendment really means.
In the last two weeks, the Infowars empire headed by Alex Jones has come under attack, serving as the latest development in America’s raging debate over free speech and fake news. Not in the loop on the latest updates? Allow me to catch you up.
Alex Jones is the far-right radio host and outspoken conspiracy theorist behind the fake news site Infowars (you might know him as the one who notoriously claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting never happened). After a number of reports from users complaining about hate speech and policy abuse on Jones’ accounts, Spotify removed a number of his podcasts from its platform. Major social media outlets quickly followed suit, the latest being video-streaming site Vimeo. In what many have interpreted as a political statement, Twitter has not removed Jones’ accounts — though they did issue a week-long account suspension due to policy violations.
In the era of fake news and QAnon, what does this recent reaction to Alex Jones say about modern America — and the question of free speech that has colored so much of our recent history?
Free Speech and Fake News: an Abbreviated American Timeline
In the 1960s, student activists at the University of California, Berkeley, pioneered the modern free speech movement. Though a constitutional right under the First Amendment, free speech was a freshly politicized subject during this decade, when Americans were experiencing the cultural upheaval of the civil rights movement and widespread protests against the Vietnam War.
Today, Berkeley is a hotbed of liberal ideology, and the backdrop of many a free speech controversy. In early 2017, students rioted when “alt-lite” polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos scheduled an event on campus. Less than three months later, the university found itself backtracking after initially cancelling a speech by conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, and then reversing its decision. A riot — dubbed the “Battle of Berkeley” — ensued, during which infamous white supremacist and Charlottesville “Unite the Right” organizer Nathan Damigo clocked a 95-pound Antifa protester in the face.
But Berkeley is not an anomaly. Rather, Berkeley is a microcosm of the relentless and polarizing free speech debate that, in many ways, defines our time.
Exacerbating free speech tensions across America is the cultural phenomenon of “fake news.” In the aftermath of a particularly exciting election season, Americans remain divided about not only traditional hot-button political issues, but about the facts being reported by major news outlets. As 45 smashes the “send” button on tweet after tweet dismissing the mainstream news media as hopelessly biased, the public is left wondering what is true and what is false, how much control media outlets really exert on national and global news narratives, and how the First Amendment should hold up in Trump’s America.
False Information Online: Media Giants and Moral Responsibility
While fake news may indeed be an expression of free speech, there is no denying its potential to cause harm. Many argue that it is a threat to the democratic process itself, damaging trust in the media and creating roadblocks to meaningful progress. Though one might hope the government would rein in the spread of false information, Trump has proven more likely to accuse established news outlets of spreading misinformation than of condemning websites that peddle unverified stories. As such, responsibility for ebbing the flow of fake news has fallen to online media giants — but some have been slow to rise to the challenge.
By media giants, of course, we mean Facebook, the platform on which thousands of fake news stories were disseminated by Russian agents before the election. But the social media giant has been slow to take meaningful action: despite a government warning issued to Zuckerberg about misinformation and abuse on his platform — and extensive reporting on Facebook’s fake news problem — in the fall of 2016, the CEO flat-out denied there was a problem, publicly asserting that 99% of Facebook posts were “authentic”.
In 2018, under more scrutiny than ever (and still licking its wounds after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal), Facebook can no longer front as though it’s really combatting the insidious problem of fake news on its site. The company recently detailed a policy of “de-prioritizing” posts that were disputed or contained controversial statements rather than removing them altogether.
When Free Speech Means Hate Speech
Facebook executives claim that propagation of false information on the platform is not grounds for account removal, though hate speech and harassment are. Shirked by both the legislative branch and major media platforms, it seems the eradication of fake news becomes nobody’s duty and everybody’s problem.
The content published by Alex Jones and Infowars frequently falls into the categories of both fake news and hate speech — but it was the latter that finally saw him booted from most major social outlets. Hate speech, though it has no legal definition, is defined generally as “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground.”
Companies like Spotify, Facebook, and Youtube reserve the right to enforce their own user policy agreements. This means that discourse on these platforms is subject to private regulations — which, admittedly, creates problems of its own. Definitions of “hate speech” may vary company-to-company, and companies can choose which demographics are included and excluded from protection against hateful expression and harassment.
On the other side of the coin, the Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed that there is no “exception” to the First Amendment. Hate speech — except that which incites imminent violence or danger, often referred to as “fighting words” — is protected under the First Amendment. So, while social media platforms may act as their own judge and jury when it comes to questionable content, hate speech remains legally protected under the First Amendment.
The U.S. is, for better or worse, a place where all people are empowered to say (just about) anything. At the end of the day, free speech is a kind of golden beacon revered and held up as the ideal of American liberty. And for the time being, the regulation of both fake news and hate speech remains the ethical responsibility of the digital platforms on which discourse thrives.