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Digital media owners silenced the left; now it’s Alex Jones’ turn. How do we define the public commons when it’s all privately owned?

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

The contemptuous work of Alex Jones was banned by Facebook, Apple, and YouTube. And yes, I said contemptuous. It’s the politest word I could think to describe this person and his work, who’s an avowed racist, fanatical conspiratorialist, and generally a vile human being. But having said all that, what does banning him from Facebook do other than, as our guest will say, make him into a martyr? Most importantly, we need to wrestle with this because his martyrdom both opens the floodgates for any unpopular views to be banned by those who own our digital media world. And we already know that ideas come from the left from places like the Palestinian world, words and statements of black activists, are the ones who make- ones who are banned the most by Facebook constantly. And Apple, at times.

To help sort through all this, we’re joined by Nadine Strossen. Nadine Strossen is the John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law at New York Law School. She is an immediate past president of the American Civil Liberties Union. And her latest book is Hate: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship. And Nadine, welcome to The Real News. Good to have you with us.

NADINE STROSSEN: I’m so happy to be here, Marc.

MARC STEINER: As I said earlier to you, you’re looking in a very lovely comfortable place on the Housatonic. I’m jealous, but we can have the conversation anyway.


MARC STEINER: So let’s go to the heart of this. When you, when you said, the statement you made in the article I read about he’s being made a martyr, and how that’s dangerous, really, for all of us in the future. Talk a bit more in depth about what that means.

NADINE STROSSEN: Absolutely. You know, censoring hateful, hated words seems to make common sense intuitively, and it certainly makes us feel morally righteous. But when you get right down to this strategy, it is no surprise that Alex Jones, like all who have been censored before him, was actually celebrating with champagne. Right? Because his ratings went through the roof the minute that he was subject to that kind of blocking. And that’s why provocateurs throughout history and around the world have reveled in opportunities to say that they are being free speech martyrs. They actually get a lot more attention than they otherwise would have, and a lot more sympathy than they would otherwise would have.

Marc, I have to tell you, I never read or heard so much about Jones in the mainstream media as I did in the immediate aftermath of his supposed censorship. It just boomeranged and amplified his message. In fact, I use the word boomerang. This is such a common phenomenon that we actually have several terms to describe it. One is the boomerang effect. One is the forbidden fruit effect, right, because it becomes more tempting after it’s forbidden. And another one is the Streisand effect, because you may remember many years ago there was a photograph of Barbra Streisand’s home in the Pacific Palisades that was published. And she so didn’t want that to be publicized that she sought to stifle it, and that exponentially increased the number of views of the home.

MARC STEINER: So we take it from that to, I mean, when you look at Facebook and some of the other digital media, especially Facebook, they’ve been banning a lot of things. They take down people’s pages. I mean, I talk to numbers of blocked activists across the country who say one thing, they call it hate speech and they take it down. Somebody wrote a piece on Dear White People. They took all the pages down. Yet when you have white people say the same thing, they didn’t take their pages down.

Go ahead, please, Nadine, jump in.

NADINE STROSSEN: Well, there’s so much to say. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to censor you.

MARC STEINER: It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine. Go ahead.

NADINE STROSSEN: See, it’s an inevitably inherently subjective concept, what is hate speech. And you look at the supposed criteria that companies like Facebook and other social media giants have put out, or for that matter that countries that outlaw hate speech, they all try to come up with definitions. And they are irreducibly subjective; concepts such as disparaging, or degrading, or dehumanizing. What one person considers to satisfy that definition, somebody else will disagree with. So it really comes down to your subjective value judgments.

And Marc, it is therefore no surprise that those value judgments are made by the powerful, whether it’s a government, or whether it’s a powerful private sector entity such as Facebook. They’re going to, over time, disproportionately make judgments that are not favorable to those who are relatively marginalized and disempowered. And throughout history we’ve seen it, we see it to this day, that disproportionately it’s those who dissent from government policies, those who criticize either government or private business who have their voices suppressed.

Some activists actually use the term ‘Racebook’ to capture that.

MARC STEINER: I’ve seen that, yes.

NADINE STROSSEN: And I don’t mean to single out Facebook, because it’s true for all of these platforms, and for all governments, as well. And so, you know, for me it really- because I completely agree with your polite characterization of the garbage that Alex Jones and other hatemongers put out there. It’s not- it’s completely antithetical to my own civil libertarian principles. But for me the question is what is the lesser of two evils? Is it worse to depend on our fellow citizens to decide that they don’t want to listen to that garbage, or they will ignore it, or they will refute it, or they certainly are not going to be persuaded by it. I would rather trust them to make that judgment than trust either Big Brother government or the bros of Silicon Valley to make those decisions.

MARC STEINER: So let me delve into the idea of free speech, and what’s protected in the First Amendment and what’s not, and how this fits into the world of a corporation like Facebook, or any of the ones that are part of the larger public media we all use as a, as a public space, to have our ideas heard, and go back and forth. So how does, what are the complexities that you can describe, but also that we have yet to iron out when it comes to the public space means anymore?

NADINE STROSSEN: You’ve really put your finger on it, because for all practical purposes this is the most important public space. The Supreme Court usually uses the term ‘public forum’ for the exchange of ideas and information that are so important to each of us as individuals. An aspect of our individual liberty and our personal life. It’s also essential in a democratic republic, where we the people are the government. This is the main public arena where we are now getting information about our government, from government officials, conveying our views to government officials, debating each other. And therefore, the United States Supreme Court, which rarely says anything unanimously these days, a year ago unanimously held that the Internet, and in particular social media, are by far the most important public platform for us as individuals, and for us as a society.

So that’s one really important point which you made, Marc, but you alluded to another point, which is the complexity that the First Amendment imposed, and its free speech guarantee impose absolutely no restraint at all on the activities of private sector entities. So we have the worst of both worlds. The biggest censorship power that’s ever existed throughout human history is the social media, and they exercise that power over the most important speech for all of us worldwide. The U.S. Supreme Court was talking about our country, but it’s true around the world as well.

And yet on the other hand, the Constitution does not protect our freedom of speech against these corporate decision makers. So they’re free to rule on the basis of their economic interests, or on the basis of their political beliefs, or as the head of one of these companies said last year when he, he woke up in a bad mood because of something that an alt-right group had said about being able to still be on his platform, which was CloudFlare. CloudFlare provides a service that’s a prerequisite for being able to be on social media. And he woke up angry about that, and he decided to take them down, to no longer service them. And his name is Matthew Prince. Even as he did that, he said, you know, this shouldn’t- I should not have that power to wake up in a bad mood and decide to kick them off. And as one of my colleagues in a wonderful organization called the Electronic Frontier Foundation said, while I may not be upset if Alex Jones- or in that case it was a another alt-right site called the Daily Stormer, I shouldn’t feel bad that they’re taken off. But suppose Matthew Prince or somebody else wakes up and decides that they’re angry at Black Lives Matter activists, or at pipeline protester activists, or people who are taking the knee. Nobody should have that power.

MARC STEINER: So how do we- before we end, how do we, what is the future struggle at the moment as you see legally, Constitutionally, in terms of our civil liberties, to redefine what we mean by public space? If our public space is now going to be defined more and more by the people who own the digital media that we use every day for everything we use now, from Instagram, to finding our music, to conversations we have on Facebook, that is the public space. That’s the marketplace, that’s the, that’s the public square.

NADINE STROSSEN: Exactly. And that shouldn’t be taken over by powerful private interests that are not accountable to the people. And I think this- and it ties into the whole debate about net neutrality which has been going on for a number of years now, because another way that they can wield their power to suppress certain ideas and elevate other ideas discriminatorily is by slowing down or making you pay extra if you’re going to get the same access to the same speed for transmitting your messages. And that violates the core notion of free speech, which is neutrality, that we should have neutral opportunity, regardless of who we are, regardless of what our ideas are, to get those ideas out there and to choose which ideas we will listen to and not listen to.

The answer can’t be through the Constitution, unless we amended it very dramatically, which I doubt will happen. The answer would have to be through either government regulation, including enforcing the antitrust laws, including passing some version of net neutrality. It could also be through persuasion and consumer pressure. Because after all, these great social- great in the sense of huge- social media companies, until very recently, you may remember, Marc, were boasting about their commitment to free speech and to let all ideas flow. It’s only within the very recent past that they have said we’re media companies, not technology companies. Remember, they used to say it the other way around. And I think it’s because of bad press. I think it’s because of pressure from politicians and for many in the public who are making the opposite complaint that you and I are. They’re saying you’re not taking down enough, and you’re not taking it down fast enough.

And it was because of that pressure that not only the companies you mentioned took down Alex Jones, even though Facebook as recently as a week or two before had said he’s not violating any of our policies, and that didn’t change within the next period of time. What did change was that there was increased public pressure on Facebook in large part for other reasons that didn’t have to do with Alex Jones. And by the way, that’s the same thing with Facebook and the others who used to support net neutrality, but they changed their position as they were becoming unpopular for other reasons, such as Russian conspiracy, right, and interference with U.S. elections.

So it really- those of us who believe that the lesser of the evils here is for them to let all ideas flow, not to act as censors or gatekeepers, but for us to use our free speech to answer ideas such as Alex Jones, or to ignore those ideas. We should raise our voices to put pressure on them as well.

MARC STEINER: Well, Nadine Strossen, it’s been a pleasure to have you with us, and I appreciate all the work you’ve done for us over these years, fighting for civil liberties here in the United States. Thank you so much. Enjoy your time on the Housatonic.

NADINE STROSSEN: And thank you so much for your important exercise of your free speech rights, Marc.

MARC STEINER: Thank you. Take care, have a great day. And all of you have a great day, and thank you for joining us here at The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.