Shout it from the rooftops: Alex Jones’s YouTube ban is NOT a First Amendment issue

The alt-right conspiracy theorist doesn’t want free speech – he wants consequence-free speech.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Pity Martin Niemöller. The German Lutheran pastor is best known for his truly iconoc poem about the Holocaust, “First They Came”:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Has any poem, with perhaps the exception of William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say”, been more manhandled on the internet than “First They Came”? Has any poem been more abused, its meaning more twisted with every invocation?

And has there ever been a more ironic appropriation of a poem’s meaning than when, as yesterday, it was re-tooled to lament the de-platforming by YouTube, Facebook and Spotify of the video channels of madcap conspiracy theorist and alt-right darling Alex Jones and his site Infowars?

Ted Cruz appropriated Niemöller, because of course he did. “As the poem goes, you know, first they came for Alex Jones. That does not end well,” the Texas senator said. He was by far the only one. “First they came for Alex Jones…” became a running theme of right-wing coverage of and reaction to Jones’s removal.

Nicholas Fuentes, another right-wing YouTuber, tweeted that Jones being banned from the platform was “a modern Kristallnacht” and “the beginning of a White Holocaust”. Yet this is the Trump era, in which the 2017 Unite the Right rally saw swastika-clad marchers holding torches descend on Charlottesville, Virginia. In this context, the irony of the American Right invoking Niemöller is mind-bending.

As HBO’s John Oliver has pointed out, Jones’s constant red-faced outrage and stories of terrifying government conspiracies to put fluoride in water or other such nonsense has done a roaring trade for his business selling protein powders to the credulous; the loss of YouTube income from this ban may not even affect him all that much, as he is operating his own shop. If anything, there is a chance the ban might just help feed back into his anti-mainstream media message.

But also and equally, the furore is an object lesson in the fact that everyone like Jones seems constantly and wilfully to ignore the fact that the First Amendment doesn’t give the right to anyone to publish on anyone’s platform.

The timing is interesting, too. Jones is in the middle of fighting a nasty lawsuit with the parents of Noah Pozner, one of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre, who are suing Jones for maintaining on his show the monstrous conspiracy theory lie that their child was in fact a “crisis actor” only pretending to have been killed as part of a shadowy government hoax (Joness lawyers say his views are opinion about public figures).

This lie has led to a years-long campaign of harassment by internet trolls and followers of Jones’s show that became so severe, according to Wired magazine, that Pozner’s parents have had to move house seven times in the last five years.

Of course, just as it did when Roseanne Barr’s eponymous TV comedy show was cancelled, the right-wing outrage-machine pulled into full gear when faced with no-platforming of Jones by institutions who, quite reasonably, no longer want to host such deeply unpleasant, violent, and hateful content.

Jones himself went characteristically ballistic, immediately trying to cast himself as a martyr to free speech. “I told you this was coming, they used military tactics and now the tech giants are all working in consort against the American people,” he claimed. If the fact that “information warfare” is literally in the name of Jones’ platform wasn’t enough of a tip-off, the free speech martyrdom of Jones is of course total horseshit. Really at issue is the concept of what a platform is.

The First Amendment to the US constitution is wilfully misrepresented by people like Jones and his supporters. It protects against abridgement of free speech by the government. What it does not provide for is the right to place your free speech on someone else’s platform, like a private website such as YouTube. If I write something racist or peddle a monstrous and cruel conspiracy theory against the victims of a massacre like Sandy Hook, it would not be an abrogation of my free speech when the New Statesman withdraws their invitation to write for them again. It's a privilege, not a right, to have a platform like this.

But free speech as Jones portrays it is not free speech at all, it is consequence-free speech.

There is a wider problem: you could argue that these organisations effectively act as governments now, at least within the information sphere, and there is no effective means of holding their decisions accountable other than by public shaming. But that question is moot: in no world would, or should, the vile conspiracy theories Jones espouses be protected from the reach of defamation laws or accountability.

It is illuminating to ask what the opposite would look like. As a thought-experiment, consider what would happen if Google was bought by, say, Steve Bannon, or Peter Thiel, and YouTube began shutting down liberal accounts. Certainly, there would be an uproar; but the right would point out that consumers are free to go where they want, and many might move to a platform that would allow them to host their material. Until the government gets involved, that’s still not a First Amendment issue, any more than it was when alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos got banned from Twitter.

This is different from that. Jones remains on Twitter but also has his own privately-hosted website Infowars as a platform to which he can pretty easily migrate his audience.

There is no “first they came” when it comes to a campaign of serial harassment and defamation; there are already laws against that. Even the purest of free speech has its limits in racial hatred and incitement to violence, but also in defamation and libel laws. You can say what you like in America, but you are not free from the consequences of what you say, as Jones is discovering in court.

So this isn’t a case of “first they came” at all – merely one of chickens finally coming home to roost.

Nicky Woolf was the launch editor for New Statesman America and has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Free trial CSS