Alex Jones is a despicable person who does despicable things including starting crazy conspiracy theories that undermine our democracy, targeting groups of people with hate speech, and singling out innocent and, frequently, grieving people with targeted harassment. After Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended Alex Jones (before Twitter decided today to partially suspend him for a week), claiming he had not violated Twitter’s terms of service, CNN nicely cataloged numerous violations: “Jones has repeatedly degraded individuals of the Muslim faith. He has attacked people on the basis of gender identity. And he has engaged in the harassment of individuals.” But, Alex Jones is not the real problem. His 891,000 Twitter followers are a lot, so are the additional 431,000 for his website InfoWars. But, his followers are relatively insular, they are far right, and most of what he says and does are contained in that ecosystem.
When it comes to “fake news”, the real problem is Donald Trump, the President of the United States, head of the Republican Party, whose tweets are rebroadcast by his personal propaganda outlet Fox News. He also undermines democracies with outrageous conspiracy theories. He also degrades groups of people because of their faith, race, or ethnic background. He also targets individuals. And he has 53.8 million Twitter followers, and nearly every tweet and corrupted thought is rebroadcast and echoed by Fox News to their 17.9 million followers.
In June and July 2018 Donald Trump averaged 202,133 retweets per day to Alex Jones + Infowars combined averaged 4,454. This one tweet, which includes several verifiable falsehoods, was retweeted 40,414 times. For the entire time-frame of June and July Infowars got just 140,290 retweets and Alex Jones just slightly more at 202,022.
As a society we have decided that everything the Republican Party does is, by definition legitimate, and that Fox News is a legitimate news organization. This takes the biggest purveyors of fake news out of the discussion. If Alex Jones were to run for office as a Republican, all of a sudden it would be ridiculous to not take him serious, to not provide him legitimacy. And, the Republican Party takes this free pass and gives legitimacy to many people who are just as bad as Alex Jones. Similarly, Fox News has open white nationalism from 8 PM to 11 PM every night. If Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, or Laura Ingram were going on rants about Hispanics polluting our country by themselves, we would shun them to dark corners of the web, but we cannot do that as they are mouth pieces for the legitimate Republican Party and legitimate Fox News.
The ironic thing about Jack Dorsey going on Sean Hannity’s show to defend Alex Jones is that Sean Hannity and his buddy Donald Trump are way worse than Alex Jones for society. Not as toxic, but much wider reach.
Let’s be clear: the First Amendment does and should protect people from government interference in their speech. Barring direct threats, anyone should be able to stand on their soapbox, website, or television station and say whatever they want. But, that does not mean that we need to treat them as legitimate. That does not mean private companies need to give them access to their platform. Private companies should be extremely transparent about their rules and how they enforced, from the President to radical conspiracy theorists to average non-threatening consumers, so consumers can make informed choices about which platforms to use.
Correction 8/16: I conflated likes and retweets for one of President Trump’s tweets and updated it.