There’s little about Alex Jones, the Texas-based fabulist and wildly irresponsible provocateur, that merits esteem, or even sympathy. He makes outrageous statements, including claiming the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax, that land him at the center of controversy.
But we’ve watched Twitter handle his tweets, videos and other content with a greater degree of care than its counterparts across the social media spectrum, including Facebook and YouTube. Those two companies have banned Jones’ accounts outright. In doing so, they’ve not only condemned his past speech but also blocked him from saying anything in the future on their platforms.
Twitter has taken a different approach. It will let him continue to post but will sanction or remove his future tweets if they violate rules against harassment or other banned behavior.
A storm of well-meaning criticism soon followed Twitter’s announcement. A report by CNN noted that many of Jones’ previous posts had in fact violated Twitter’s rules, and with impunity. In response, Jones deleted some of those tweets and Twitter suspended his accounts for a week as a warning.
We sympathize with Twitter’s critics. Jones’ brand of misanthropy is a prime example of the kind of incivility souring so much of our public discourse in America. His business model seems to be based on saying whatever is necessary to sufficiently infuriate his core fans to keep them engaged. It’s a tawdry way to make a living.
Still, the way companies like Twitter and Facebook respond to troublesome, false and even outrageous content has free speech implications for all of us. Their platforms, used daily by vast numbers of Americans, have become de facto public squares.
That doesn’t mean these companies are legally required to maintain such forums. Because they are private firms, the First Amendment’s bulwark against government censorship does not apply.
But the ideas upon which the First Amendment was built are no less vital for want of legal effect. The best remedy to fight bad speech remains more speech, rather than suppression. That’s why Twitter’s path strikes us as prudent.
Twitter’s approach will be to delete Jones’ tweets whenever they break the rules. Enforced with enough oomph, this approach may even influence Jones to modify his offending behavior.
But the biggest chance at doing that remains where it has always been — in the hands of other Twitter users. After all, Jones’ tweets only have power when spread by his followers.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS