Should Infowars’ Alex Jones be kicked off Twitter? That question is inseparable from this one: is Twitter a public space or a private network? If it’s the latter, Twitter boss Jack Dorsey can do whatever he likes. In which case arguments about freedom of speech being trampled on lose most of their force.
But if Twitter is considered the modern day equivalent of a public square, it’s a more complex problem. All sorts of scumbags and dangerous people are allowed freedoms of expression in public.
So is Twitter a public space? Is Facebook? Are they unavoidable utilities, which brings them closer in character to a shared public space, or completely discretionary niche platforms that are non-essential in everyday life?
It’s fair to acknowledge that there are reasonable arguments on both sides.
On one hand, Facebook and Twitter (and YouTube and iTunes) are platforms that have only been around for a decade or so. Despite their prevalence, it is still very possible to communicate freely and be fairly fully informed without using such services. (There is a plethora of television and radio available, not to mention umpteen newspapers and news websites, many of which are still free to access.) It is not yet the case that to be locked out from Facebook and Twitter is be denied a voice in the world.
So it’s tough to argue that they’re actual utilities. Water and electricity are utilities. A road is a utility. Hospitals and healthcare are utilities. The internet, broadly, is a utility. There isn’t much alternative to any of these.
But Facebook? Twitter? It would take a lot more to put these services on that scale. Maybe if they also owned the biggest telecom companies and could control access wholly, they might fairly be described as essential utilities. But as individual social media platforms? It doesn’t feel like they fit that description.
Yet there is another way of looking at it which, unfortunately, backs up some of the arguments made by a few of the ugliest people on the internet.
Viewed through a different prism, Twitter and – especially – Facebook are now public spaces that have evolved into a public phenomenon above and beyond other kinds of media or publishers.
Facebook is used daily by two billion people, including most adults across Ireland, Europe and the US. For many people, especially older people, Facebook is the internet. It is where people are seen and heard more than any other place. To cut someone off means erasing them, to some degree, from public life.
As such, there may be more universal principles of freedom of expression that more naturally attach to what is becoming a near-universal platform. So even if they’re not yet ‘utilities’, they may be big enough to count in attracting some of the considerations and allowances that apply to utilities.
And Twitter? Although only a fraction of the size of Facebook, it unquestionably has an outsized effect on public discourse because of its heavy usage among public officials, politicians, journalists and other influential figures that shape much wider swathes of public policy. To be denied a voice on that platform may arguably be to lose a decisive foothold in important public discussions.
But I’m still not convinced.
One basic problem with arguing that Alex Jones has a near-inalienable right to use of Twitter and Facebook is that it means throwing out most of the ‘good behaviour’ rules which aren’t a legal requirement but which are vital in making those services civil and workable.
In other words, all bad behaviour must be allowed unless and until it is dealt with by an external legal agency, the test that free speech advocates apply. That would be chaotic and horrible. Our laws, and our agencies, simply don’t have enough about them to manage the range of abuse that we humans come up with online.
Honestly, it is a relief that social media platforms have the slim rules they have.
So sorry, Alex Jones supporters. Facebook and Twitter have to have rules, above and beyond what national legal frameworks mandate. And they have to sometimes make arbitrary decisions to kick people off, even when to do so attracts cries of censorship.
That being the case, Alex Jones and Infowars is surely fair game. There can be no question that Jones has pushed way beyond the bounds of decency. He has denied that the Sandy Hook massacre, which killed innocent children, took place. He has also promulgated wild conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s alleged involvement with grotesque fictitious events in a way that has led to people literally taking up arms against others.
Yes, there would be an inconsistency in leaving up tweets from Donald Trump, particularly one this week calling a former female staff member a “dog”. (Jack Dorsey should take that tweet down as violation of his rules, too.)
But for social networks to function in a civil society, there have to be rules of behaviour. And if legislatures won’t set them, social networks must.
Both Facebook and Twitter already allow or ban content based on rules they make up. There is little by way of public oversight on such rules, other than the bare minimum legal standards of defamation or prosecutable hate speech.
So for its own good, it’s now time for Twitter to kick Alex Jones out.