The obligatory “Yes, Alex Jones is a lunatic, but…” preface is redundant. Almost no one of any repute would defend Alex Jones on substance. Alex Jones’ lunacy is self-evident and needs no further comment. The only relevant question is whether we want a media landscape in which a tiny cadre of unelected private officials are empowered to decide, in secret and with no mechanisms for accountability, that the time has come to purge this lunatic from the public square.
While it’s true that the word “purge” might not be completely correct in a literalistic sense, as Jones still has his own private website, it’s apt in a practical sense because the “social web” generates such a huge proportion of overall internet traffic today. To deprive him of access to YouTube, Facebook, Apple, and Spotify is a virtual death sentence. Do we want a situation in which a handful of individuals in California can wake up some Monday morning and decide to order, effectively, online death? Are we comfortable with the fact that there is essentially no recourse available to persons who suffer this fate, nor are there any oversight bodies to which an appeal can be directed? Jones may not have had a formal legal right to access any of the platforms he was vanquished from, but that’s exactly the issue: public discourse is increasingly managed by a technological super-elite who are accountable to no one but their shareholders.
You can draw a direct line from yesterday’s events to the “fake news” panic which ensued after the 2016 election, when stunned politicians and media mavens concluded that it was necessary for the preservation of American democracy that the internet be ridded of pollutants such as Jones. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump quickly co-opted the fake news slogan, obliterating its original meaning. But the term initially germinated as the anguished cry of elites desperate for an explanation of how an election outcome which so radically altered their conception of American political life could’ve possibly come about. Determined, they set out to purify the internet.
They cloaked their desires in the language of civic virtue and societal self-help — Twitter executive Jack Dorsey recently coined the creepily ambiguous phrase “conversational health” — but what their endeavor always necessarily entailed was the concentration of power in the hands of a select few, and the elevation of a new elite deemed worthy to regulate the public sphere. In demanding that the high priests of tech carry out this gargantuan task, they imbued Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple with unearned ethical authority; the tech executives became modern-day philosopher kings, and it was simply assumed that these people are rightful possessors of the ability to determine what “content” should and should not be available for public consumption.
Though the tech heroes were hauled before Congress and chastised for not doing enough to beat back both the Russians and the homegrown fake news agitators, they made out well from the deal. In demanding that they do something, they were demanded to arrogate vast new powers to themselves. They already commanded vast powers — on a scale unseen in human history — but the panicked elites wanted them to wield even more, and to do so in a benevolent fashion.
And so now they’ve done something; they’ve done away with Alex Jones. They exercised their massive powers in furtherance of the public good, or so we are to believe. The expected response to Jones’ vanquishment is to get down on our knees and give thanks for the wisdom and grace of these tech titans — for they know what is best for us. We’re not supposed to think too deeply about the implications; we’re told instead to dwell on what a menace Jones is (or was). Not to busy ourselves with the significance of the extraordinary new power they exercised — simultaneous banishing across the major platforms. Jones in many ways was a perfect test case, because he is so comically easy to hate, and his hateable qualities divert from any consideration of what these corporations just declared they have the capacity and will to do.
We must love our new tech overlords.