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The Week Alex Jones Became a First Amendment Hero

Last week, conservatives, who had previously made free speech heroes out of such shady subjects as would-be lady-killer Kevin Williamson and outrage peddler Milo Yiannopoulos, outdid themselves by nominating a new wingnut John Peter Zenger: Alex Jones. Remember, Jones is the nut who is being sued for claiming the dead Sandy Hook students were just faking it and has been actively tormenting the children’s parents, and who recently talked on air about killing Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller after having also called him a pedophile. There have been many other psychotic outbursts.

Jones won conservatives’ support by getting thrown off of Facebook, YouTube, and (partially) Apple for promoting hate speech, which seems pretty fair in his case. But conservatives turned this into what we might call a First Amendment With an Explanation issue — that is, the First Amendment doesn’t really support the argument that private companies should be forced to carry Jones’s content, but conservatives seemed to think if they bitched about it awhile they’d get their way.

Jones’s public-forum slack was quickly picked up by other media players, at least to hear him tell it: He announced he’d added 5.6 million new subscribers just 48 hours after what Breitbart described as his “Big Tech Blacklisting.” NBC News reported that Jones’s move from YouTube to Real.Video “caused a surge in new users and the creation of over 350 new channels on the site in the last day, an uptick from the ‘dozens’ that [Real.Video creator Mike Adams] noted in a video three weeks ago.” Twitter, perhaps sensing a market opportunity, declined to ban Jones.

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You’d think conservatives would be happy about this free-market solution. Yet even as Jones was celebrating his windfalls, conservatives were rending their garments over the big, mean, allegedly liberal corporations who had told Jones to fuck off, thereby violating his civil rights.

Most of the brethren were careful to add that, of course, they didn’t endorse Jones’s rantings — which they sometimes didn’t bother to describe — but were just defending his right to appear on other people’s media platforms as a matter of conservative principle.

For example, National Review editor Rich Lowry, writing in Politico, called Jones a “poisonous toad” — though he mainly faulted Jones for “lunatic theories about the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg group and the Illuminati” that “have been a fringe staple for decades.” See, he’s just like the harmless nuts appearing on public access television! (Lowry only mentioned Jones’s Sandy Hook views briefly in the fourteenth paragraph.)

“But banning Jones,” Lowry wrote, “especially in the manner it was done, has significant ramifications for free speech.” Lowry admitted these corporations “can silence whomever they like,” but contended that the right to do so was not the issue (let alone the discussion-ender a normal person might think it was) because “the power of social-media platforms is enormous,” and to Lowry that power “suggests that these companies have a responsibility, in keeping with their outsize role in the public debate, to give the widest possible latitude to free speech.”

Lowry didn’t say why Facebook’s power makes the company any more responsible to accommodate Jones than, say, the Wall Street Journal or National Review, but he eventually got to his real gripe anyway: liberals. Facebook said it had dumped Jones for “hate speech,” Lowry wrote, which apparently is a liberal thing to do: “There is considerable sentiment on the left for the proposition that using disfavored pronouns for transgender people is dehumanizing.” By Lowry’s logic, it would be problematic if Facebook ejected an asshole who insisted on calling a trans woman “he.” “The possibility of a slippery slope here,” Lowry wrote, “is real and disturbing.”

David French, another National Review writer, was also given space in a better-read journal — the New York Times — to make his case for Jones’s free-speech rights. French too made the obligatory diss on Jones (“loathsome conspiracy theorist”) and about the very concept of hate speech (“ever-changing social justice style guide”), but he also offered the errant tech companies a solution: only prohibit content that meets the legal definitions of libel and slander. “It’s a high bar,” French admitted. “But it’s a bar that respects the marketplace of ideas.”

While Jones’s content is “polarizing,” and includes some unnamed “discredited claims about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting,” wrote Fox News’ Brian Flood, Jones’s removal was “prompting even some of the bomb thrower’s staunch critics to voice censorship concerns.”

As it happened, the “staunch critics” Flood named were conservatives such as Mark Dice, Ben Shapiro, and veteran wingnut Brent Bozell, who claimed in Flood’s story that Jones is not even a conservative, a dubious assertion since nearly everyone Jones excoriates in his rants is a liberal. Flood quoted Bozell as saying he opposed Jones’s removal as “a dangerous cliff that these social media companies are jumping off to satisfy CNN and other liberal outlets.” Flood added, “Bozell said that tech giants caving to CNN’s push ‘is part of a disturbing trend’ that includes influential conservatives being muted on Twitter,” which is in reference to an earlier bullshit story. Attacking a fellow conservative as a nonconservative, then claiming that removing this nonconservative shows bias against conservatives, is some next-level shit.

Even that subgenus of conservatives known as “libertarians” were against Facebook et al. exercising their freedom of association rights against Jones. “Booting someone like Jones from Facebook or YouTube altogether could easily turn him into a martyr among his paranoid fans,” said Timothy B. Lee, a libertarian stalwart at Ars Technica. “Social Media Giants Shouldn’t Be Arbiters of Appropriate Speech,” groused David Harsanyi at libertarian flagship Reason. 

“Banning Alex Jones Isn’t About Free Speech — It’s About the Incoherence of ‘Hate Speech,’ ” wrote Harsanyi’s colleague Robby Soave, who added, “I’m saying this for a third time so that I’m not misunderstood: Facebook can define hate speech however it wants.” But Soave continued, social media platforms’ “broad view of what constitutes unacceptable hate speech” may “prompt yet more cries of viewpoint censorship down the road.” And, as we saw in the threats congressional Republicans hit Facebook with recently, “cries of viewpoint censorship” can get serious real fast.

This view of the Jones case soon seeped into what’s left of the mainstream. On a CNN roundtable that addressed the Jones situation, pundits kept calling what happened to Jones “censorship,” as if he’d been banned from the internet rather than from an unwilling transmitter. The most hilarious was “First Amendment attorney” Marc J. Randazza, who, honest to God, did the Martin Niemöller thing for Jones, starting with “First they came for the Nazis…” and then warning liberals, “When [censorship] comes for them, who will be left to speak up?” As if there were a single conservative in America you could name who’d say shit about it.

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Meanwhile, Microsoft told the alt-right site Gab to get rid of neo-Nazi Patrick Little’s anti-Semitic posts if it wanted to continue using Azure servers. Eventually Little “voluntarily” removed the posts, Gab announced.

Surely Microsoft’s threat was, if anything, more of a free-speech faux pas than Jones’s defenestration. After all, even offensive speech deserves protection from corporate interference, right? And Little’s posts certainly weren’t slanderous or libelous, thus passing David French’s test. Yet none of the previously mentioned conservatives, or any other conservatives I could find, leapt to Little’s defense. (Well, the Daily Stormer and the guys at 4chan did, but maybe we shouldn’t count them — at least not yet.)

Despite all the lofty talk, this isn’t about principles, but about power. Normally conservatives think corporations do no wrong. For example, they’ll never claim Monsanto has some vague “responsibility” to make sure Roundup doesn’t destroy the planet. But social media companies have something conservatives desperately want: the attention of millions of Americans. National ReviewReason, Fox News, and the rest do their best to compete with social media companies on the allegedly level playing field of free-market capitalism. But the media companies can’t compete with social media’s reach — that’s why conservatives are muscling these companies. These media companies hope to win not only points from Jones’s adoring, ignorant fan base, but also more concessions from risk-averse social media companies. As often with conservatives, it’s whine-win!

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Truther Drama Unthinkable: An Airline Captain’s Story Needs a lot of Quotation Marks

Until sufficiently proven, a lot of quotation marks are required to unpack Eric Stacey’s “true-crime” dramatization of the “faked” 2013 murder-suicide of 9-11 conspiracy theorist Marshall Phillips and his teenage kids, “incorrectly” reported by “corrupt” police and the “misled” media.

Gracelessly shot and cruddily lit, this exposition-heavy, no-budget docudrama lionizes and martyrs Phillips (Randall Paul), a former airline pilot and finger-pointing author who truthers believe was silenced in a CIA black-ops hit.

The official report, on the other hand, points to Phillips’s crippling debt, impending divorce, mental instability (a psychiatric diagnosis grounded him as a pilot years earlier), and stone-cold forensic evidence, so where’s the smoking gun?

In Stacey’s case, it’s in having his low-rent cast — especially Dennis Fitzpatrick’s dubious investigative journalist — smugly regurgitate shaky case details as if playing petulant high-schoolers (a never-used door was found unlocked; a right-handed man delivered a bullet to his own left temple!). Even more bone-headed are the carelessly superimposed clips of controversial radio host Alex Jones and intelligence muckraker Wayne Madsen.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean your speculations are sound, your writing and filmmaking skills are passable, or that you’re preaching to anyone but the fearfully converted.

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Doc Hangs with Conspiracy Theorists in New World Order

If conspiracy theory can be construed as one of the fastest-growing contemporary religions—a belief system that explains the unknown and gives shape and meaning to life—Alex Jones might well be its Moses. The partial subject of Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel’s New World Order, the beefy, excitable Austin radio host and filmmaker dwells somewhere to the right of Rush and the left of Michael Moore. A fittingly paranoid presence in Richard Linklater’s more dystopian movies, he’s been quarantined by media gatekeepers to that fringe where moon-landing doubters trade panicky looks with flat-Earth proponents.

To an underground coast-to-coast audience, however—which devours (and spreads) his homemade j’accuse! exposés about global and national cover-ups as if they were tablets hot off God’s press—Jones is the Last Honest Man. Nobody in the MSM has the balls to say this stuff, so he has to talk twice as loud. “You want us to back off?” Jones bellows into his mic, jolting the VU needle into the red so often it could work as a windshield wiper.

A facile but fascinating documentary about the world of 9/11 skeptics and world-domination doomsayers, New World Order stops well shy of endorsing Jones’s arguments, the most incendiary of which is that 9/11 was a massive government-executed plot. But it gives his theories a more sympathetic, or less critical, airing than they’ve yet had (except among the converted). Neither a call to alarm nor a laugh-at-the-loonies yukfest, the doc charts a temperate middle course through its subjects’ heated rhetoric.

Directors Meyer and Neel made the arresting 2006 documentary Darkon, about a Baltimore community of medieval role-players, and they’ve mastered the deadpan Errol Morris gambit of frame-the-oddball-in-his-natural-habitat—as when a chipper Christian couple strums a hymn while their TV plays 9/11 explosion footage. But you walk away from New World Order wishing they had taken their subjects’ ideas seriously enough to give them the rigorous factual challenge they need, even if the result is that they’re thrown away . . . or, God help us, confirmed.

The filmmakers connect the dots of deep-seated conspiracy belief from militia-friendly Idaho—where an ex-cop named Jack McLamb keeps vigil over those bedrocks of freedom, “the jury box, the ballot box, and then the cartridge box”—to post-Katrina New Orleans, where a baby-faced 9/11 truth convert named Seth Jackson pleads to passers-by that the Pentagon plane crash was a hoax. The latter provides the movie’s most telling moment, arguing with a man who claims he’s a Pentagon staffer—and who takes umbrage at Jackson telling him that the plane wreckage he walked past every day didn’t exist. There’s no hope of eventual consensus: They don’t even occupy the same planes of reality.

The players in conspiracy theory may have changed—yesterday’s Masons, Illuminati, and Elders of Zion are today’s Bilderberg Group of moguls, whose hush-hush meeting Jones stakes out with gung-ho Jack Bauer zeal. But the underlying appeal remains the same: The powerful few secretly enslave the many, and the signs are everywhere for those who dare to look. Put another way: This crazy world makes sense after all.