In Part 2 of this series, I talked about the incidents that happened since Alex Jones was banned from various platforms. I also talked about how I felt about Jones being targeted. Additionally, since I found out that the U.S. government (and the European Union) was involved, it made me think deeper about the issue of online censorship.
Now, it’s been over a month since I last visited this series, but a lot more has happened on this front. Before I can get into the nitty-gritty, I will need to talk about a few of these developments.
What Has Happened Since I Last Addressed This Series?
A lot has happened since I published Part 2 of this series. For one thing, Alex Jones was permanently suspended from Twitter. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, testified in Congress a day before that suspension. And days before that testimony, Donald Trump attacked Google in another one of his early-morning Twitter rants.
Google Helping the Chinese by Offering a Filtered Searching Experience
On August 1, 2018, The Intercept published a report that detailing how Google was planning to build a censored search engine for China. According to that report, the search engine would block certain websites, terms, and images from users. Among the banned searches would be those connected to democracy, human rights, peaceful protest, and religion. A whistleblower in the company decided to leak pertinent documents to The Intercept over ethics concerns.
The project (called “Dragonfly”) had already been underway since spring 2017, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai held a secret meeting with China’s government in December 2017. The company had also created a custom Android app which two versions named “Maotai” and “Longfei,” which it had demonstrated to the Chinese government. The final versions of those apps were set to be released six to nine months after the report.
This project reflected a sharp change of course for Google. In 2010, the company had moved one of its headquarters from Beijing to Hong Kong after the company based on of the issue of censoring searches. However, Google had previously worked on a censored search engine for China four years prior.
Trump Targeting Google
On August 28, 2018, Donald Trump went after Google in a two-tweet rant, but not because of the company’s plans in China. Instead, Trump accused the company of filtering search results in order to bury right-leaning sources. This, of course, could not be directly proven, because Google’s algorithms are a company secret. (I’ll have more on this below.)
Congress also took Trump’s lead and hit Google in September. They would call for social media executives to testify, largely based on the premise that Google, Facebook, and Twitter were punishing right-wingers more (they weren’t), but most of the vitriol was reserved for Google (which had no representative testify).
Jack Dorsey’s Testimony in Front of Congress
Shortly before Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was set to testify in front of Congress about online censorship, The Wall Street Journal ran a piece about Twitter’s handling of controversial accounts, like those of Alex Jones and white supremacist grifter Richard Spencer. The Journal claimed that Dorsey had overruled his staff’s decisions when it came to suspending Jones and Spencer’s accounts, but Twitter’s chief legal officer, Vijaya Gadde, said that Dorsey never did anything of the sort.
While Dorsey has sometimes made tweets addressing the way certain users’ accounts were handled by the Twitter staff, he said he never directly weighed in on those matters until after the fact. He also supported his staff’s decisions by saying that users like Jones were suspended because they violated the terms of service. He would repeat the same things on Wednesday, September 5, 2018, when he and Cheryl Sanberg appeared before Congress.
Sanberg and Dorsey jointly appeared in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee early in the day. During that hearing, Sanberg was mostly grilled on Facebook’s data collection practices and both were grilled about a possible anti-right-wing bias. Dorsey appeared later in the day in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
As a sideshow, Jones appeared at that hearing and grabbed some more attention for himself. Besides going on a rant about being targeted, he got under Sen. Marco Rubio’s skin for a few moments.
Alex Jones’ Banishment from Twitter
On Thursday, September 6, 2018, Twitter permanently suspended Alex Jones (@realAlexJones) and InfoWars (@infowars) from its platform. Twitter said that Jones would be barred from making a new account on the platform and if he uses any other existing account he has on the website, that account will be suspended, too. The social media website cited numerous reports of abuse, but the main factor may have been a Periscope video of Jones following CNN reporter Chris Darcy in Washington, D.C. Jones had confronted others during his visit, but he made the fateful decision to confront Darcy.
Before Jones’ banishment from Twitter, he was provoking the platform with a series of tweets and videos decrying censorship and the Silicon Valley businesses that controlled social media. In one video, he told his followers to get their “battle rifles” ready.
At the time, this only elicited a week-long “timeout.” Twitter also told him to delete the offending tweets.
One Lawsuit Against Jones Was Allowed to Proceed.
On August 30, 2018, Judge Scott Jenkins rejected Alex Jones’ motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit against him in a Travis County, Texas court. Jones, who lives in Travis County, was being sued by Leonard Pozner and Veronique Da La Rosa. The two were the parents of 6-year-old Noah, who died in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and they alleged that Jones’ coverage of the shooting led to them being harassed. They had to move seven times.
On his InfoWars program, Jones talked about Sandy Hook for months and said that the shooting was a hoax. Jones also said that the story was being used as a smokescreen to push more gun control measures.
Jones also faces a second lawsuit. That case was brought by Neil Heslin, whose son died at Sandy Hook. Judge Jenkins had yet to rule on whether that case could proceed.
How Can We Move Forward?
Ultimately, we need to have an open discussion among progressives. We need to be honest about how we feel about free speech. This discussion might have to take place over days or weeks, because we cannot solve this in one day. It might take years to solve the problem of online censorship, but we must start here.
This is one example of the type of discussion I would like to see.
This is by far the best video on the subject on online censorship that I have seen to date. Both sides of this argument (among progressives) were openly and calmly represented and Greenwald gave me a few things to think about. Briahna Gray Joy was an excellent moderator.
Hold that thought. Before we can even have that type of discussion, we need to ask ourselves some important questions. Then after having that discussion, we should carefully plan out our next steps.
What Are the Questions We Should Ask Ourselves?
When brainstorming for this post, I was able to come up with a ton of questions, but there are five basic ones we should ponder.
1. What Are the Limits to Free Speech?
Basically, any rights one person has will end where another person’s rights begin. I believe this is true about the right to free speech because some special is just harmful and carries no value beyond that.
For instance, there are limits to free speech in the United States.
- People can be sued for defamation in terms of slander (false statements in speech) or libel (false statements in print/online)
- Someone can be arrested for yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
- Someone can be arrested for inciting a riot.
- Anyone can be arrested for calling in a bomb threat.
- People can be arrested for sending death threats, especially to the president.
- People can be investigated/arrested for threatening to kill someone or telling others to beat up or kill another person.
There is more, but you get the point. In short, when someone uses their speech to threaten or encourage others to harm someone else, the first person is breaking the law. When talking about online censorship, much of our focus should be on these extreme examples.
2. What Is ‘Hate Speech’ Exactly?
Nowadays, the term “hate speech” seems nebulous, because it is liberally applied to speech that some idiots don’t like. I have come across extremely hateful comments over the years, and some were just targeted at certain fictional characters, celebrities, or athletes because the people making the comments personally hated the people they were talking about. While I wouldn’t exactly call that hate speech, it straddled the line because many of those people took potshots of the fans of the people they hated, and their comments were extreme. I don’t think I would ban that speech, but I would ban certain users based on how they treat the community.
That said, this is how I would define hate speech:
- Any commentary that denigrates a certain group of people, based on their race, skin color, nationality, gender, religion, political beliefs, sexual preference, or sexual orientation.
- The commentary must include dehumanizing elements, like insults and slurs.
- The commentary may also include calls to physically harm the people in these groups.
- The commentary could include calls to economically disable the people in the targeted groups.
Now, we must be careful when dealing with negative comments because not all can be considered hate speech and talk about the different levels of enforcement, based on the sites in question.
For instance, in terms of religion and nationality, we must separate the criticism of religions themselves and state governments from criticism of people who follow religion and those who live in certain countries. I think it is fair to criticize certain tenants of a religion or to criticize the decisions made by governments, but we must be careful not to dehumanize people just because they follow a religion or live under a repressive government.
In terms of websites, we must consider the reach they have. For example, forums should have less scrutiny than sites like Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter should have because there are so many forums for different niches and those three particular websites have a greater reach.
3. What Do You Think About the Terms of Service?
We must figure out if websites like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube should even have terms of service or if these sites’ terms of service are useless. Personally, I think that these websites should have terms of service, but they need to be more transparent about them. In particular, these websites need to be clear about constitutes abuse on various platforms and apply their rules evenly. These websites should also have abridged TOS to go along with the legalese.
In addition, the websites need to institute rules that protect “smaller” accounts. For instance, on YouTube, individuals are at risk of receiving strikes and having their accounts taken down due to copyright strikes and false reports of abuse. Creators are also being bullied by news companies and advertisers because those companies don’t like those creators’ content.
Corporations, like those in the entertainment industry, should not be given so much power. YouTube was created for small creators and it should not be used as another tool to help struggling industries or corporations maintain their relevance in a changing creative landscape. Now it makes sense if advertisers want to withhold ads from clearly hateful content, but we need a clear definition of what hateful content is and let everything else be.
4. Should Social Media Platforms Suspend or Ban Any Users or Groups?
Honestly, I think some users should be banned from various platforms, but only if they cross a certain line. Here are some examples:
- Doxxers should be suspended or banned based on the type of information they release. If someone doxxes themselves, that’s another story.
- People who threaten violence should be suspended or banned. The accounts should be locked beforehand to prevent the account holders from deleting their offending tweets.
- The people who use social media to find victims (for sexual abuse, human trafficking, etc.) should have their accounts locked, and they should be banned from making new accounts.
- Terrorists should have their accounts locked and be banned from making new accounts.
In each instance, I am against deleting accounts. To me, it stinks of unnecessary censorship and a cover-up. All accounts should be kept up for evidence in a court of law and those suspended accounts should have notes from the website discouraging the crimes committed.
5. Should Social Media Platforms Be Nationalized?
In the end, we might have to move in this direction based on the reach of certain websites and the purpose they serve for people who are connecting with family members, networkers, businesses, and entrepreneurs. Some people argue that Twitter and Facebook have become a public square based on the number of people using those services, so when certain people are banned, they are being cut off from the people they know and lose profits due to having less access to prospective customers.
If we do nationalize websites like Facebook, we must figure out what should be done if social media was nationalized. For one thing, we need to figure out how the U.S. government or any government could go about regulating these websites. How should they communicate with governments to make sure they are complying with federal and/or international laws?
We also need to set rules for what governments can or can’t do. One thing I would ban is the kind of partnerships the governments already have because it is state-sponsored censorship.
Additionally, we have to figure out how many moderators these platforms should have. Right now, Facebook and the others are ill-equipped to deal with the problem. They didn’t anticipate the problem and never wanted to moderate it anyway, but they have not choice but to come up with a system that protects free speech and protects the innocent.
One option would be to allow users and groups to self-police. I believe that the things that are in place (blocking options, muting options, and the report option) are good, but websites need moderators and administrators to sort through legitimate reports and false reports. That will be a huge undertaking for Facebook, which has over 2 billion users, but it must hire enough people. Twitter must decide if it will crack down on the use of banned bots (which people use to mass block people) or get rid of that rule.
Ultimately, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube need to allow users to have more freedom while being evenhanded. Again, these websites need to be transparent about their rules and apply them evenly. They should allow people enough leeway to talk trash, but clearly delineate trash talk from hate speech and true crimes.
What Are the Next Steps We Should Take?
Lefties will have to have a full debate/conversation amongst themselves. During this discussion, we need to hash out all of our differences and really listen to each other. Even though it has been well over a month since this debate flared out, there are still underlying frustrations.
Most of the frustration is connected to Alex Jones. While people like Jimmy Dore believe that Jones’ content is humorous, there is a case to be made that some of Jones’ content was harmful. Both sides of this conversation need to be heard.
Some people would have no problem with people like Jones if they just used his platform to have a normal political discussion or anything else — as long as counterarguments would be allowed, as well. However, Jones is acting while knowingly talking to the gullible and using language that incites them. (By his attorney’s words, Jones is doing an act, and comedian Corey Coleman attested to that.)
After that discussion, we need to investigate the claims made by Facebook, YouTube, etc. in terms of the mass suspensions, banishments, and deletions. We will need to come to an agreement on our findings, call for transparency, and push for more sensible regulations.
What Doesn’t Help?
If you asked people what we should do to fight the two-party duopoly, most would say one or more of the following:
- Start a third party.
- Take over the Democratic Party.
- Vote out the worst politicians.
- Protest and make a ruckus.
- Make calls to lawmakers.
- Build a political network.
- Be unapologetically progressive, because gusto and better ideas will win out.
- Boycott the corporations who donate to the worst politicians.
What can we do in terms of corporate censorship? The answers aren’t that clear, but the following is what we don’t need.
1. Progressive Infighting
This is a test of people’s values, but we will not help the progressive movement by getting at each other’s throats.
One thing that’s pissing me off about this is how people on one side of this argument are essentially blaming the other side for what is happening or conflating them with the Democratic loyalists who are going along with Russiagate. The people who agree with me on Russiagate don’t agree on everything else. That’s just the reality of the situation.
I also have a problem with the way some commentators have responded to the debate and the progressive movement. Among those are Benjamin Dixon, Sam Seder, and David Pakman, because they are targeting one person in particular. I’ll talk about that in depth sometime in the future.
Now, I follow a few progressives on Twitter, and on my personal account, I have seen some people I follow go after each other with a vengeance. One of those people (who I still follow) told another progressive to “fuck off” and that worried me. That was completely unnecessary. (She later indicated that the wounds were healing, and she still loved the people she disagreed with on this issue.)
While Lefties Need to Be Civil to Each Other
While I have said that the civility fetish is BS, civility among lefties is a must in this case. When people are on the same page and their ideas have equal weight and validity, they need to remain calm and respectful when speaking to one another because that will promote a substantive debate.
The Chasms This Discussion Has Caused
This discussion has been one huge test for the progressive movement because we are seeing how we’ll react when people who are supposed to be on the same page have a major disagreement. This debate has shown that there are two basic camps: those who are free-speech purists and those who feel that certain people should be banished due to what they deem “harmful” speech.
A Note About Jimmy Dore
As I’ve said before, Jimmy Dore has made most of the valid points in this debate. However, on some level, I feel that Dore is punching down a little bit. I’m not sure who he’s talking to sometimes, because he is being very vague about the “progressives who support corporate censorship.”
When Dore talks about Democrats and Republicans, you know he’s talking about specific politicians and the people in power. In this case, he is being very vague about who he’s talking about and it feels like he is painting too broad a brush.
Sometimes, it seemly like he was conflating some of his listeners with Russiagaters and lashing out at people who felt pretty powerless. Much like we couldn’t control the government or the social media platforms’ reaction to Russiagate, we can’t really do anything about the sweeps they’re doing now — beyond moving to other viable platforms.
I actually tweeted to Dore with my @TheOtherShmaltz account on Twitter, but he never responded. Still, my point is that he was not being fair to may lefties because they weren’t on the same page as him (at least not at that juncture). He is mad that some people celebrated Jones’ banishment, but he’s making too big of an issue about that, IMO.
Ultimately, Dore needs to have a little patience with each other on the Alex Jones thing. For now, many of the people celebrating his banishment are doing so because of a sense of schadenfreude. It might not be right, but it’s how they feel.
A Note About Those Who Celebrated Jones’ Punishment
To be fair, the people who are celebrating Jones’ banishment need to get over this idea that their progressive brethren are defending the indefensible because that is a poor argument and a lie. The point of protecting free speech is to protect the innocent. That should be the point of all laws and rules and that’s what people like Dore and Kyle Kulinski are trying to stress. If we can all see it that way, this discussion will be much easier.
While the free-speech purists have not always articulated their points well, they are leading up to the point of questioning why Jones was targeted now and not before. The timing of his banishment by a few websites looks like collusion, but another question we should ask is, “Did these websites have any use for Jones before?” I suspect they did.
2. Focusing Too Much on Alex Jones
Now, I know that other progressives might be calling for consistency, but if we are going to have an honest debate about this issue, we have to let that go for the time being. Again, lefties need to have a discussion about corporate censorship. But the way I see it, focusing on Alex Jones is a non-starter. That’s why we need to remove him from the discussion — at least early on. Then we can focus on the implications of online censorship.
Once again, Jones’ situation has nothing to do with what happens to lefties on some level. Sure, his banishment from various platforms will be used as a pretext to ban certain lefties. He has made conspiracy theories mainstream, so the press uses him as a litmus test to paint all people who speak against the establishment as “conspiracy theorists.” (This effects lefties like Dore, and that’s what has Dore scared).
However, Jones didn’t need to be banned for lefties to be targeted. The lefties who are being banned right now would likely have been banned anyway whether or not Jones was dealt with.
That said, our focus should be on all other aspects of this situation so we can look at this objectively. The conversation will have to come back to Jones eventually, but the primary focus should be on what we would do to protect ourselves and the people we like and applying those rules across the board.
Then, when the situation goes back to Jones’ situation, we should see how our new rules should have been applied in his case. Should Jones have been banned? Honestly, I think that YouTube should have kept his account up because there was evidence he broke the law — where the Sandy Hook survivors were concerned.
3. Ignoring Smaller Accounts That Have Been Shut Down
As a result of focusing so much on Jones, we ignore all of the smaller accounts that have been censured or shut down. It’s important that we keep a record of those accounts in order to have a full accounting of the type of censorship we’re dealing with. This should be part of our investigation. And, if that investigation makes it clear to everyone that the left was being arbitrarily targeted, the left would be able to coalesce and do something about it.
4. Relying on Conservatives to Be Fair About It All
One would think that conservatives and liberals might want to work together to fight online censorship, but both sides are so polarized at this point, that it’s virtually impossible. The truth is that there are so many right-wingers who are acting in bad faith, and it was made clearer these past few months, starting with Roseanne’s banishment, and including the fight to block Brett Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court.
Lefties also need to stop waiting for reasonable conservatives to step forward because that will not happen. Reasonable conservatives do exist, but they’re the same people who allowed the Republican Party to get so extreme — by doing nothing and failing to speak out against extremists in their party. They’re the same kind of people who will not fight on the front lines with their unions but still benefit from all the work their colleagues have done to raise wages and get better conditions for workers. Reasonable conservatives will do nothing in this fight, so do not count on them.
5. Major Media Outlets
Earlier, I said that Trump’s claims about Google’s algorithms couldn’t be proven. However, Google’s algorithms are made to punish certain websites. From what little I know about SEO (search engine optimization), Google constantly updates its algorithms. It will punish, or reward certain sites based on various factors, including links to high-quality content or the lack thereof. Google’s algorithm is limited, but it crawls web pages in order to look for certain elements, like comments, headings, and formatting, to determine if the content is shareable and/or readable.
Beyond that, there is a case to be made about politics in Google’s algorithm, but not in the way Trump wants people to think. For instance, numerous independent news sites have reported a decrease in traffic. At the same time, it is clear that mainstream news sources, like CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and even Fox News get ranked higher in Google searches. This is by design.
In case you missed it, major media companies have been working to limit the reach and the voice of smaller outlets and individual creators, not just on Google, but on social media. This fight has been extended to YouTube, as every now and then, companies push for hit pieces on certain people and report users for copyright violations. We cannot count on the mainstream press to help in this fight because they are our competitors and they like to fight dirty.
6. National Governments
To add to that last point, the mainstream press and social media outlets are in bed with the government. As I discussed in the last point in this series, Facebook is working with the Atlantic Council, which is connected to NATO, some branches of the United States government, and the European Union. The Atlantic Council is led by neocons and they are only interested in shutting down dissent.
We should also be worried that Congress has taken an increased interest in social media. Not only are members of Congress technologically illiterate, but they have no interest in learning about the intricacies of social media — beyond how it benefits them or allows them to “prove” collusion that they won’t act on.
We should be worried that even Democratic senators like Chris Murphy are calling for more only censorship because the websites will not only go after pot stirrers like Jones but people who go against certain narratives.
We should be leery of what they see as “fake news” because, as in Trump’s case, it could mean any news they don’t like. These same members of Congress want to ban the BDS movement or arrest people who talk bad about the po-po.
At this point, certain countries want to use social media as another means to dispense propaganda. That means countries like Iran are being targeted in a prelude to a war with them. Would you like to see the United States get involved in yet another war? I sure as hell don’t.
In the end, this is a test for lefties to see what they can do to network with one another, communicate with one another, and to stay on message despite occasional disagreements. Progressives need to figure out what their priorities are and come to a consensus on the most important issues. They should not cut ties over smaller disagreements but work through them, because that what adults should do.
We also need to be honest about the implications of online censorship. Since Jones incites the gullible, the people who support his banishment have a point. Yet they should be careful about their campaigns to banish certain people because from Facebook or Twitter those same methods could be used against them. Lefties need to talk about this.
That said, you may have noticed that I am talking about having a discussion on the left and only on the left. Well, that’s where this discussion should be.
Lefties should have this discussion amongst themselves because each is like a canary in a coal mine; what happens to them usually hits first, but it affects so many other people later. Thus, progressives have a vested interest in fighting against online censorship. Progressives will end up doing most of the heavy lifting anyway.