No Free Speech Shields for Frauds

Monopoly Platform Crisis

The removal of the fraud Alex Jones’ InfoWars programming from major tech platforms has been met with a great deal of applause and also by some pushback. The applause reflects a fact of life on the Internet: while Jones is clearly an entertainer who deals in a particularly gruesome variety of humor, many people regard him as a truth teller rather than the fraud he is.

This reflects Poe’s Law of the Internet: “Without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, it is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the parodied views.” The pushback comes from conservative intellectuals who are so taken in by Jones that they regard him as a fellow conservative.

Jeong’s Attack on Naomi Wu

The debate over the wisdom of de-platforming Jones parallels a debate over the New York Times editorial board’s hiring of Sarah Jeong, an anti-copyright extremist and racialist with a penchant for Twitter fights.  Jeong doesn’t just counter-troll racists, she goes to war against fellow Asian tech women such as Naomi Wu:

These tweets arose out of a controversy around an exploitative article in Motherboard about Wu, a social media celebrity and adventurous dresser in Shenzhen. Jeong has also attacked music business professionals such as David Lowery simply for mentioning hip hop music in a Congressional hearing while white.

Lowery drew Jeong’s ire by making a passing observation about the continued inventiveness of hip hop music despite sampling limitations.

The Asymmetry of Internet Libel

It’s appropriate for platforms to define and enforce community standards for the kind of content they’re willing to host because it’s a lot cheaper to harm reputations on the Internet than to repair them. This is true in real life as well, but the Internet exaggerates the imbalance.

Alex Jones can accuse Hillary Clinton of “murdering, chopping up and raping children” in seconds for no cost, but it will cost Hillary a lot of time, money, and negative publicity to sue him for libel. While Sec. 512 of the DMCA provides copyright holders with a fast and (relatively) cheap path to the removal of infringing content from platforms, YouTube doesn’t have a similar obligation with respect to defamation. They have a process, but it’s not terribly effective.

Community standards is a maddeningly vague standard that tends to rely on amorphous notions of “hate speech” and incitement. Hate speech is also an asymmetric standard, easier for members of minority groups to prove than for members of other groups. That’s as it should be, but it provides no comfort for people like Secretary Clinton.

Why Community Standards Matter

Even if YouTube and Facebook had meaningful standards for forbidden conduct, it’s difficult to enforce precise standards case-by-case. I’ve seen pages taken down by Facebook because swarms of critics launched coordinated complaints that simply overwhelm its moderation process.

This has happened to people who support sensible public policies such as immunization and science-based food production. Some pages are harmful by intent, such as InfoWars. And others are harmful by ignorance, such as anti-vaccination pages. And some are just trolling for income, such as Motherboard.

Community standards allow the case-by-case moderation process to reach the conclusion that a page is essentially harmful and should be removed to mitigate the effects of its messages on the wider community. The problem is how to create such standards and, once created, how to implement them so the system isn’t gamed.

Commerce Plays a Big Role

It’s important to bear in mind the fact that many of these speech controversies have a huge commercial side.

Crazy promises on the InfoWars Amazon store.

Alex Jones doesn’t simply play the role of the conspiracy nut on the Internet, he uses his platforms to build a base of customers for the dodgy wellness and survival products he sells through his online store.

People who buy his dramatic narratives and likely to spend good money to keep the globalists out of their blood streams. Jones sells garbage supplements directly from his web site and through an Amazon store. On Amazon, the products are sold through outrageous claims.

The FTC should enforce federal laws making it a crime to make false claims for medical products without research backing, but it’s easy to thread the needle to create false impressions. Detox supplements are not a thing, so all of these claims violate the law.

Hiding Behind Political Speech Protections

InfoWars and Vice Media hide their essentially deceptive commercial income streams behind political and cultural free speech shields. Jones raises the First Amendment flag when his supplements business is threatened and Motherboard owner Vice Media claims to be a social justice warrior when its journalistic practices are shown to be exploitative.

Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t mean Facebook and YouTube must carry InfoWars as much as it guarantees they need not; that would be compelled speech. And Section 230 further frees the platforms to make curation decisions.

But the kind of people who shop at the InfoWars store don’t know this. And the platforms have dug themselves a hole by claiming to be neutral with respect to content when their users want them to curate. Apple has built great businesses with iTunes and their app stores by curating responsibly.

The Problem is Fraud

How hard would it be for platforms to add a condition to their terms of use to the effect that they will not host content for firms that engage in intentional, deliberate deception to sell products? This is different from regulating their speech and potentially more effective.

The issue here isn’t political or cultural messaging, it’s fraud.

The Internet community places an exceptionally high value on freedom of speech. It would be wise for all of us to be a bit less concerned with what we consider the status quo opinion to be a lot more dedicated to making the Internet better.

As those of us who don’t buy into the conventional wisdom around net neutrality have been saying for decades, the Internet has a lot of room for improvement. Banning frauds is almost always a good thing.

UPDATE: Amazon gets the fact that Jones is huckster hiding behind a First Amendment shield: it hasn’t removed him from the site, but it has stopped recommending his snake oil.