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Friday, September 24, 2021

Few tales are more perplexing than the Alex Jones saga. The eccentric, conspiratorial host of InfoWars seems to be at the center of virtually every controversy, from insinuating that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook was staged (and subsequently being sued for it) to sending child pornography, supposedly unknowingly, to the plaintiffs in a defamation lawsuit. 

To those familiar with Jones, he’s one of the most unlikable figures in American politics. I’m not coming to his defense, but he’s one of the first people to be largely expelled from the mainstream internet. The precedent his banishment sets demands serious consideration. In July 2018, Facebook suspended Jones for 30 days in accordance with its hate speech policy. About a week later, Spotify removed some of Jones’ content from its streaming service, and Apple quickly followed suit. In August 2018, YouTube removed the Alex Jones Channel. A month later, Twitter permanently banned Jones, and Facebook did the same earlier this year. Even PayPal banned Jones.

Each of the companies involved have their own reasons as to why they decided to either remove Jones’ content or ban him outright, although most cited either hate speech or a violation of their terms of service. The reasons given have been questioned by conservative commentators including Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder. Regardless as to why, big tech has successfully eliminated Jones from the mainstream internet and has undoubtedly hampered his ability to disseminate conspiracy theories and peddle quack medicine such as his “DNA Force Plus” and “Super Male Vitality” supplements. However, the fact that tech companies have this ability doesn’t mean that they should necessarily exercise it. Such an ability is ripe for abuse, especially among growing concerns over the role of social media in elections and social media bias. 

Moreover, how do we decide which opinions are so horrid they’re not even worthy of existing? By choosing to ban or suppress controversial figures like Jones, social media companies transform themselves from mere platforms for facilitating communication into arbiters of morality. In aristocratic fashion, a handful of companies can decide what information is simply too dangerous or offensive for the unwashed masses to handle. 

One of the benefits of the transition from old to new forms of media was the complete freedom of information that was brought about. Traditional gatekeepers like publishers and news networks were removed from the equation, and anyone could disseminate their opinion en masse, no matter how unpopular it was. Now, by becoming gatekeepers themselves, social media companies jeopardize the internet’s greatest quality. 

Sure, fringe figures can continue to host their own websites and use alternative platforms, but web hosting is often prohibitively expensive. Smaller competitors of major social networks don’t have anywhere near the same reach. If the price we have to pay for a free and open internet is Jones ranting about how chemicals in the water are turning frogs gay, or explaining in detail why he believes Sandy Hook was faked, then I guess it’s a price worth paying. 

Cameron White is a UF computer science senior. 

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