Hate Speech and Hard Choices

In The Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo an iconic choice. Take the blue pill, and Neo can wake up in bed, wrapped in the security of the life he has always known. Take the red pill, and Neo would give up life as he knows it, embracing a new truth and the uncertainty that comes with it. Refusing to pick a pill would be as much a decision as red or blue. Neo had no choice – he had to choose.

A similarly decisive moment arrived this week for a cadre of social media and tech giants. After months of mounting pressure, Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify made their choice and banned Alex Jones from their platforms.

Jones has used his radio show (The Alex Jones Show) and website (InfoWars) to spread falsehood and hate for years, including the conspiracy that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax and that the government uses chemically altered juice boxes to turn children into homosexuals. Simply put, Jones is an odious crackpot. To say that the present conversation has little to do with the value of Jones’ work isn’t just an understatement; it’s a use of the words “value” and “work” so charitable that it should be tax-deductible.

Instead, the decision to ban Jones has become a staging area for a larger conversation around content moderation and censorship. The debate has calcified around two opposing positions. One side argues that social media and tech giants have a responsibility to prevent bad-faith actors like Jones from using privately-owned platforms to spread hateful bile. Apple, Facebook, Google and Spotify have every legal right to give users who violate their terms of service the boot. Why allow conspiracy theorists, trolls and haters to hijack social tools, amplify harmful messages, and infect the broader conversation?

The other side argues that banning Jones, objectionable as he may be, is the first step down a slippery slope of censorship. It is naive to ignore the power companies like Apple, Facebook and Google wield as gatekeepers. Do we really want private companies to unilaterally decide who is and is not allowed to participate in discourse? Do we trust these companies to draw the line for what speech is too hateful or harmful to be shared? Does such a line exist in a country that has enshrined freedom of speech as a near-sacred right?

Tech companies tried to avoid these questions by distancing their “neutral” platforms from content shared by users. This approach hasn’t satisfied either side. Those calling for the removal of hateful content found half-measure solutions, like repressing the sharing of false content through manipulation of news feed algorithms, woefully inadequate (there’s a strong argument to be made that this form of behind-the-scenes, sleight-of-hand censorship is even more problematic than an outright ban). Those arguing against censorship in all forms found these half-measures just as problematic as an explicit ban would be. Banning Alex Jones reveals that Apple, Facebook, Google and Spotify felt they could no longer avoid making a choice.

That choice may end the conversation around Jones, but it’s only the beginning of the real debate. Jones’ repulsive résumé makes him an easy target for expulsion; most issues won’t be as cut-and-dry. Where is the line between unpopular speech and hate? How do you even define hate speech? What about pro-Israel advocates who argue any criticism of Israel is a form of hate? Or those who accuse the Black Lives Matter movement of crossing over into hate speech? Now that a line has been drawn, passionate voices will only work harder to steer the pen in their favor.

Content platforms will have to seek ways to moderate content without triggering outrage from either side. One promising study from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business found that changing the format of news shared on Facebook to highlight the source – rather than just the headline – led users to more critically assess the credibility of the news. This finding suggests that simple modifications to how news is presented can nudge people towards more thoughtful engagement. Tweaks of this nature are no magic bullet, but any step in the right direction is a start.

Those steps better come soon, because the ban of Alex Jones signals a major shift. After years of taking the fifth, the decision to expel Jones is a guilty plea to the accusation that tech giants are responsible for abusive or dangerous use of the platforms they create.

Facebook, Apple, Google and Spotify picked their pill. Now we see how deep the rabbit-hole goes.


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