The news that conspiracy theorist and inciter-to-violence Alex Jones had been simultaneously banned from several social media platforms sparked several days of debate and comment – on both mainstream and social media. At stake were questions about the wisdom and efficacy of such a ban, and the acceptable limits of free speech.
A common argument trotted out in several quarters, including by me, was the ‘slippery slope’ argument. It might seem acceptable to ban someone unpleasant like Alex Jones, but who might they ban next? First they came for Alex Jones, but I was not a dangerous snake-oil salesman, so I did not speak up…
However, in the case of Alex Jones and the issue of social media bans, my ‘slippery slope’ argument doesn’t quite work in the way I (and many others) had assumed. Journalist and campaigner Jillian York called it out here:
If there is a slippery slope of platform censorship, it didn't start with Infowars. It started with the Moroccan atheists, the trans models, the drag performers, the indigenous women…
— jillian (@jilliancyork) August 7, 2018
Jillian followed up with links to reports on those Moroccan atheists, trans models, drag performers, and indigenous women.
So when we talk of ‘slippery slopes’ or invoke Pastor Martin Neimöller, we should really be pointing out that Alex Jones is not the first person to be censored in this way. If he wishes to claim the mantle of free-speech martyr, it might be pertinent to ask whether he staunchly defended the rights of others, before he found that his own platform had been pulled out from under his feet.
First they came for the Moroccan atheists, and Alex Jones did not speak out because he doesn’t care about Moroccans or atheists;
Next they came for the trans models, and Alex Jones did not speak out because he engages in hate speech against transgender people;
And finally, when all the minority groups had lost their voice and been hounded off the platform by organised hate groups, the social media companies finally came for Alex Jones…
If Alex Jones really cared about the principle of free speech he would have defended it for these people and others he dislikes.
Now, for the avoidance of doubt, this is not to suggest that we should particularly welcome the technology companies unilaterally banning people from their platforms. Nor that Alex Jones qualifies for some special exemption from the free speech rights we afford to others.
Instead, it is simply worth noting that other people have been censored before the alt.right blowhard, and there are far better candidates for the title of ‘free speech martyr’ than Mr Jones.
Indeed, pragmatic free speech advocates would do well to remind people of the other, earlier cases. If we did so, we might disabuse people of the dangerous misconception that ‘freeze peach’ is just a sheild for the bigots.
if an company was gonna ban, restrict or deincentivise speech it didn't like, it's gonna do that anyway. these freeze peach fuckheads were absent when progressive, leftist and queer content got restricted, demonetized and outright flagged away.
— actual gremlin terezi peerope (@KaseTheBlerd) August 22, 2018