Conspiracy theories have been around since humans started gossiping about what really happened to the family living in the cave next door.
But like many things now, the internet offers conspiracy theory fans the means to spread lies quickly and broadly. Linked with that capability, e-commerce allows entrepreneurs to monetize humans’ propensity to spread rumors.
Alex Jones and his conspiracy-laden Infowars website are an infamous example.
Jones uses conspiracy theories to hawk his dietary supplements and prepper gear. If you don’t know, prepper gear includes equipment and supplies you’ll need when one of the conspiracies Jones spreads happens – such as President Obama’s invasion of Texas.
You might think Jones is just a fringy guy who operates a website of little consequence. But his work has won the praise of President Donald Trump, and Jones’ conspiracies tales are spread by millions of people.
So when social media companies decided this summer to bar Jones – temporarily in most cases – from posting material on their companies’ platforms, it was controversial.
The decisions, explained officials at Facebook, Apple, YouTube and elsewhere, were based on Jones’ repeated violations of the companies’ terms of service.
According to a piece in the New York Times, Facebook said it acted because Jones had used its site to glorify violence and used “dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants.”
Jones claims he has a constitutional right to post material on Facebook.
Most legal experts disagree, arguing that the constitutional right to free speech can’t be used to force a private company to provide a platform for anyone and everyone. At least not yet. Some Republicans in Congress, who think social media companies are biased against them, have started making noise about grabbing more control over how some of the country’s biggest tech companies are operated.
At the same time, a new poll shows nearly half of Republicans think President Trump should have the authority to shut down newspapers he doesn’t like.
These are worrisome trends, especially with this administration.
Is it really possible that in a debate over free speech, our elected officials will side with a conspiracy huckster who promotes the lie that the murders of schoolchildren in Connecticut was a government hoax and that the grieving parents were merely paid actors?
It’s not only possible but a fact that many of them played along as Jones falsely accused Hillary Clinton and her top campaign officials of running a child sex ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Jones and his Infowars website make big bucks spreading lies online, and they have a right to keep lying as a part of their political/business model.
No one has taken that right away. What Facebook, Apple and other private companies did is suspend or ban Jones’ posting privileges. He no longer can post content on their sites.
Historically, private individuals and companies have had the right determine what kind of content and behavior is acceptable for their platforms.
As with most new technologies – think radio in the early 20th century – companies have struggled to figure out how to police the bad actors and criminals who want to exploit their new technologies. Likewise, government regulation often lags in its efforts to provide reasonable parameters for companies and individuals using new technology.
While calls for more regulation are understandable, the urge should be restrained.
Those who want to give the president authority to shut down newspapers, or to empower the government to order Facebook to promote Alex Jones’ lies, might consider what their opinions would have been a couple of years ago when Barack Obama would have held those powers.
Furthering one’s political views shouldn’t eclipse the importance of protecting the principles upon which the nation was founded.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.