LARSON: Online Censorship Is Meant To Destroy Discourse, Not Improve It

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Caleb Larson Contributor
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that online censorship is unnecessary because the judicial system and internet users effectively filter out hate speech. You can find a counterpoint here, where Charles Kolb argues that some online censorship is necessary to protect against truly harmful speech.

You may not have noticed it, but advocates for free speech on Big Tech platforms this week won a major victory.

On April 18, Alex Jones’s website InfoWars filed for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as a result of being found liable last year in a set of lawsuits filed by the families victimized by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. Jones had claimed that the shooting, which resulted in the tragic deaths of 20 children and 6 adults, was actually a hoax. Jones and InfoWars had already been banned back in 2018 from most major technology platforms, including Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, long before the guilty verdict and bankruptcy protection filing. In other words, the legal system worked and held Alex Jones accountable for his defamatory remarks.

If the judicial system and public square are all coming down upon Alex Jones to hold him accountable for his Sandy Hook claims, then why is there a need to silence him completely by erasing him off any and all Big Tech platforms? The answer lies solely in the power bestowed upon those overseeing the online censorship regime. Big Tech actively colludes to target its censorship, not to foster healthy discourse on their platforms, but rather to punish their enemies and reward their political allies. The existing system set up to remove dangerous speech is sufficient, and every time it works, the baselessness of Big Tech’s excuses for silencing and deplatforming are laid bare.

Contrary to the image the left paints of social media, that of a hellscape filled with unfettered “violent” speech, our legal system polices truly dangerous or libelous rhetoric relatively well. Alex Jones being brought to court and being found guilty over his claims is one such example, but there are plenty of others. Spend time online long enough, and you are bound to see people threaten to lawyer up in response to defamatory claims made against them. Explicitly threaten someone with violence, and your post will most likely get removed, although this sometimes depends on who is being threatened, unfortunately. Spread a lie or get caught misleading people, and you are bound to hear an uproar from those looking to call you out.

This isn’t to say that the judicial system and the accountability imposed by other users exposing falsities is perfect at preventing malicious behavior online. However, such a perfect system is unattainable, and these mechanisms provide sufficient policing of the public square to make platforms sustainable. This way of operating also matches up with what the Founders intended for our public square. Free speech, enshrined in the First Amendment, is a legal protection against the government, but it is also a spirit that can permeate a culture. Objectionable speech online can be met with speech to counter it. This way, the public hears both sides and gets to ultimately decide which speech is right based on the merits. If that objectionable speech veers into libel or incitement, then there are legal solutions that can be sought out by those affected.

Kicking Alex Jones off of social media was ultimately destructive for the internet. Rather than making these online platforms safer and more hospitable for users, this decision marked a first step in a long line of censorious decrees. When Big Tech realized that they could deplatform someone who was considered fringe, they took it as an invitation to foster a system that would expand that fringe label to other political opponents and expand their censorship at will to those with opposing political beliefs.

If users post content online that is illegal, the judicial system will sort it out. If they make outrageous and false claims that stop short of illegal, let the chorus of counterspeech drown them out. The important aspect of these two methods of accountability is that they are democratic in nature. We the people determine the legal system these platforms reside in, and each one of us gets a unique voice to share our opinion. Big Tech censorship lacks any input by those under its crushing power. It only serves the interests of those on top of these massively powerful corporations and their allies across other powerful institutions. These platforms can have some wiggle room to remove threats of violence and other dangerous speech, but the bar must be set high for such enforcement. The current censorship disaster we have online is unnecessary and hurts the flow of information and debate that the internet enjoyed before Big Tech got intimately involved in policing their content.

Alex Jones made claims that were harmful in the eyes of the law, and he is being held accountable for those claims, not by the internet’s hall monitors, but by our judicial system. A strict censorship regime does not solve the issue of bad speech and only masquerades as a defense against “misinformation.” Its true purpose is to punish ideological dissenters and political enemies while creating an echo chamber that promotes a desired narrative. Dismantling the censorship regime will not make technology platforms unsafe for users, but rather restore a culture of free speech to the internet that empowers those users to seek truth with the best chance of success.

Caleb Larson is a cybersecurity researcher, policy analyst with the Internet Accountability Project, a Heritage Foundation alum, and contributor at Human Events where he writes about cybersecurity-related issues facing the United States.