On Tuesday evening, the sun hanging low over a distended San Francisco, @Jack released Twitter land’s verdict on whether or not Alex Jones was going to be booted from the platform. Silicon Valley was beginning to reign in the cult evangelist for his many violations and now, with Apple leading the charge, others were falling in line. His crimes are many. A five-plus-year crusade against the victims of the Sandy Hook, Connecticut massacre had run parents of murdered children out-of-town and far from their graves. He routinely dehumanizes and degrades anyone that isn’t shooting up a church or restaurant. He is at the center of what seems like a zombie horde of conspiracy theories and theorists blooming into noxious realism.
As long as these stories center on liberals or the marginalized or women, then anything seems justified. There was ‘Pizza Gate’, Hillary Clinton and former president Barack Obama being demons, a supposedly fabricated church shooting in Texas, you name it. If he can draw a line, if he can say you are evil, subhuman, inhuman, or worse, then his follower count grows and so does his revenue. But he needs their platforms to do it, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey just saved him from complete exile. For Twitter and for Dorsey this is very on brand.
… a rigorous adherence to institutional free speech is as central to a democracy and society as the law itself.
With Trump now in the seat of power, Alex Jones’ ethos has entered a new dimension. Now his message, “There’s a war on for your mind!” has been weaponized by a political faction that calls the press the “enemy of the people.” That names everything he says but nothing journalists write “free speech.” And the distinction is important. Jones has become the pied piper of the propagandist arm of the Republican party. So the valley finds themselves in a precarious position. Platforms like Twitter and Youtube were built by idyllic minded first amendment kids. The thinking is that freedom of speech equals freedom of information. That a rigorous adherence to institutional free speech is as central to a democracy and society as the law itself.
Except, however, when you are Black, brown, a woman, disabled, LGBTQA, or otherwise. For you, Twitter is not a vacuum. It is not a university of ideas being debated to and fro. It is not a comedy club. For you, Twitter is both a salve, a ghetto; a meeting place and a boxing ring. For you, Twitter is where you go to push back against hatred or to find those whose experiences provide context to yours. Using the pent-up anger of the marginalized, Twitter has become the nexus of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. Hashtags that have become metaphysical tent poles against further erasure. But to thrive all platforms need rules and Twitter has been willy-nilly about when and where they use those rules.
22 percent of online African-Americans used Twitter in 2016 as compared to 16 percent of whites. The metaphorical ‘Black Twitter’ has thrived both because of and in spite of Twitter’s insistence on feeling out when they apply their rules against ‘hate’ and when they do not. In the meantime, online harassment is getting worse. In some instances, people are taking their hatred offline and to the doorsteps of the journalists they despise. Jones has become a symbol for this kind of vitriol. His is an all-encompassing rage that follows no flag, credo, or creed. He claims to champion freedom but hangs anyone who doesn’t agree with him from the mast of his delusional pirate empire. He is getting sued left and right by those who he has victimized over the years for inciting others to their homes, their jobs, their time away from the world online. But his savior is misunderstanding something.
For most of the history of the United States, white free speech has meant limiting the speech of others.
For most of the history of the United States, white free speech has meant limiting the speech of others. Freedom to call Civil Rights heroes the n-word; to beat them; to kill them, did not mean the freedom of those people to defend their bodies from plunder. The freedom of law enforcement to harass Muslims after 9-11 did not include the freedom of those Muslims to take up words to inculcate themselves from it. Jack is finding out that freedom for those in power means more power. For Jones, this is an idea that he enrobes himself in. It is luxurious, this freedom because it protects him from even taking into consideration the point of view of others. And if his worldview is, on the face of it, the embodiment of what — to Twitter — their brand of institutional free speech is trying to protect then not only will Jones’s brand of madness continue, it will become exponentially worse for all of us who do not look like him. With this decision, Twitter has made the choice to limit the voices Jones’ diminishes. I hope, for all our sakes, it’s not as bad a choice as we think it is.
Dorsey thinks he’s making a choice about freedom when he’s actually making a choice about power, which is a distinct something he and Jones have in common.