This August, Facebook, along with a host of other online digital companies, decided to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his podcast, Infowars, from their respective platforms. Their justification for this was that Jones’ content violated community standards and guidelines by fostering ‘hate speech’. Unsurprisingly, though Zuckerberg’s decision was met with approval by the left, it was condemned by figures on the right, who have stated their concerns about Jones’ First Amendment rights.
The First Amendment’s place in Media
The media and the First Amendment have had a complicated relationship in US politics. Part of this complexity can be traced to the 1940s with the creation of the Fairness Doctrine, which dictated that broadcasters, when reporting on issues of importance, had to do so in a manner that portrayed more than one perspective. The intention behind this doctrine was that differing views were reflected in the broadcast media.
However, during the 1980s ‘Reaganomics’ deregulation period, the FederalCommunications Commission dispensed with the Doctrine, determining that it was unconstitutional given its impositions on press freedom. Additionally, the Doctrine was seen to have difficulty determining which perspectives should reasonably be included, especially when it came to fringe views. The consequence of this decision was that media outlets were seen as having the right to be as prejudiced as they saw fit, paving the way for the US’ highly partisan media landscape.
The decision to ban Alex Jones and Infowars is therefore less about freedom of speech, than it is about Facebook’s freedom of the press. For all of its rhetoric as a neutral platform for the proliferation of ideas, Facebook is still a private media company with the right to implement its own independent policies.
The Crux: What are Facebook’s moral obligations?
Yet the media’s right to unfettered independence appears to be diametrically opposed to the original expectations of the internet — and indeed Facebook — to be a neutral platform for open discussion.
In Zuckerberg’s hearing regarding Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook’s history of suppressing news from conservative sources on the websites ‘trending’ news section was also a critical point of discussion. According to former Facebook employees, certain news stories regarding Rand Paul, Mitt Romney and other right-wing topics, despite being organically identified as popular, were suppressed and replaced with alternative, pre-selected content. Nobody disputes that Facebook has a legal right to do this. Yet, given Facebook’s position as the premier social media platform and its own —at least stated — policy of neutrality, academics believe such conduct to be at odds with the company’s moral obligation to refrain from political prejudice.
In the face of this perceived oppression, the Alt-right has begun to shift towards alternative platforms. Alt-tech companies such as Gab (alt-Twitter), WrongThink (alt-Facebook), and Voat (alt-Reddit) have all emerged, largely in response to this perceived political prejudice. Though these platforms have yet to demonstrate levels of popularity indicative of a genuine challenge to their mainstream counterparts, they are demonstrative of growing levels of frustration on the Alt-right, and more broadly, and increasing political polarisation.
This places Facebook in a catch-22; either it openly admits its liberal bias, or it remains firm in its behaviour while still officially claiming to be neutral. Both options isolate it from portions of the social media market. Ultimately, Facebook will probably opt for the latter option, if only because of commercial motives.
For now, Facebook can rely on its dominance over the social media market as a buffer against the ascension of any competitor. Yet, it would be impulsive to assume that Facebook's dominance will always remain a certainty. Reddit’s brief usurpation as the top social media website as well as flatlining growth for Facebook within North America and Europe over the last two quarters, demonstrate that Facebook's hegemony is not absolute and guaranteed.
Zuckerberg’s banning of Alex Jones is his most significant political manoeuvre and no doubt was in response to the criticism he has received for allowing the platform to be exploited with misinformation, divisive content and extremist rhetoric by far-right factions and Russian social media campaigns. Indeed, one must remember that the #DeleteFacebook movement was a partial consequence of Facebook’s previously libertarian approach to censorship.
By banning Alex Jones, Facebook has paradoxically both hindered and repaired its legitimacy. It will therefore be critical to observe whether, going forward, Zuckerberg can maintain a balance between Facebook’s purported neutrality, and the avoidance of future exploitation of his platform by forces seeking to undermine liberal democracy.
Michael Nguyen is an Intern at the Lowy Institute and the assistant intern Co-ordinator at AIIA, NSW.