Liberals reacted with relief and delight last week, when gravel voiced conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was disappeared from the internet. I don’t like Alex Jones. I debated him in 2011 about 9/11 and 7/7 conspiracy theories and he suggested I was a government shill. He peddles outrageous, sometimes hateful, lies in order to fund his business of selling tat. (Visit the Infowars online shop if you really want to understand what he’s all about.1).
In a strange way Jones is a natural mutation of the internet business model itself – more outrage equals more clicks equals more sales. Perhaps one reason Google and Facebook ditched him was because he reminded them too much of themselves.
The Jones banishment is part of a concerted effort. The big tech firms are under increasing pressure to make the place more hostile for people like him: over the past few weeks and months several high profile radical right-wingers have found social media – for a long time their haven – is no longer so welcoming. Gavin McInnes, Vice Founder and alt-liter, was also expelled. Milo Yiannopoulus was acrimoniously dumped some time ago. Behind the scenes the companies are upping their monitoring procedures and removing significantly more content than even just a year ago – especially radical Islamist.
Very few liberals were overly worried about the Jones affair. To anyone who expressed a concern about free speech, the stock response was: Facebook and co haven’t denied Jones his freedom of speech. They haven’t stopped him from hosting his own blog, from shouting from his own rooftop or writing his own newsletter. They have simply stopped him spewing his babbling drivel on their private platform. Private platforms can do as they wish.
This is exactly correct, and I’m glad they’re acting more responsibly. But it is also exactly the problem. Regardless of the specifics of the Jones case, it illustrates the way tech companies increasingly decide what ideas people access, what’s in the public domain and what’s not, and therefore the shape and contour of the public sphere.
Not in a strictly legal sense: Alex Jones could indeed start up his own newsletter, and he probably will. But in a functional sense the public sphere has become a private enterprise, a set of servers owned by Californian companies.
I don’t need to recite the stats about how much time people spend there, or how majorities get their news from social media. You all know that Facebook (including Instagram), Twitter, Google (including YouTube), and Apple (iTunes) is where people receive their information about the world, and where the issues of the day are thrashed out. Amazon will join them soon enough, because personal assistant devices will become de facto info curators (‘Alexa – tell me the news’). You may be vaguely aware that these are all private profit-making companies, tucked along the West Coast with shareholders and profit targets and advertiser pressure.
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I don’t envy these companies by the way. They would rather not make determinations like this. They don’t want to get tangled up in controversial debates about what should or shouldn’t be hosted, but their size and influence has made it unavoidable. Whatever choice they make – whether about politics, offensive images, nipples – someone will get upset when their stuff is up or down on the great algorithmic wheel of fortune.
In any case, this transformation – public space into private server – is far bigger even than Mr Jones’ over-inflated digital footprint. There are plenty of ways the public debate can be subtly controlled, accidentally or through design. Algorithms are designed to serve you content that you’re likely to click on, as that means the potential to sell more advertising alongside it. For example, YouTube’s ‘up next’ videos are selected based on a sophisticated analysis of what is most likely to keep a person hooked in.
There are lots of reasons why politics has turned into a hot angry mess, but public discussion being subverted to the needs of advertisers ranks high among them. And before you say ‘But Rupert Murdoch…’, newspapers and broadcasters are still subject to more stringent regulation than social media. Not to mention that the YouTube algorithm alone shapes what over a billion users are likely to see, which is more than every newspaper in the world combined.
It gets worse. According to Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology, based on the win margins in national elections around the world, Google could determine the outcome of “upwards of 25 per cent” of them based on how it displayed search results. There is no evidence that Facebook or Google have or would intentionally do such a thing – but how would you ever know?
Perhaps the Alex Jones decision was the right one. Having watched a lot of his stuff, no doubt it breaches all sorts of terms and conditions. But in the end these companies were surely also motivated by pressure, by fears about advertisers jumping ship, by PR, by popularity. (Twitter, to its credit, seemed more open, and said it would stick to banning accounts based on its rules).
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Ultimately, the transformation of the public sphere into a private server means that what we see will be increasingly motivated by advertiser needs, by reputation – cue the heckler’s veto, where whoever shouts the most gets their way – or by profit. That’s not a good basis for such decisions. And whatever the motivating reason for removing content, those decisions will be taken by a very small group of people with similar world views, which isn’t good for political plurality.
So cheer away! It’s hard to be saddened if fantasists have a smaller public platform. But bear in mind that one day opinion might turn against your ideas and pet concerns. Or perhaps the bosses who run the giant platforms might change. You could suddenly vanish too. You’ll still have your free speech! But as you scream from the wilderness of deep cyber-space, no-one will hear you.