Earlier this week, YouTube joined Apple and a number of other high profile web-content platforms in banning content produced by conspiracy-crackpot commentator Alex Jones, in a shift touted by large sects of the internet as a victory for progress.
I’m just not sure what kind of progress it is that we’re after.
The internet outrage machine recently turned its sights on Jones, but his inflammatory content designed specifically to elicit outrage is certainly nothing new. Jones first popped up on my radar nearly two decades ago. At the time Jones was already a fairly well-known conspiracy theorist. He and cameraman Mike Hanson snuck into the Bohemian Grove, an expensive estate in Monte Rio, California, to capture the strange-seeming rituals practiced at parties on the grounds by some of the world’s richest and most influential people. That footage is the only known instance of the Bohemian Grove’s festivities ever to reach the public, and although to the pragmatic-minded, it just looks like a bunch of rich people pretending they’re at Burning Man, to the type of person that believes the government is being taken over by reptilians, it seemed proof enough that Jones was onto something.
From there, Jones went on to build a media empire that leans heavily into common American undercurrents like distrust of the government and the belief that tragedy is almost never without strategy. Jones and his disciples see the state of the world and assume all of the negative trends are the result of one (or multiple) concerted efforts because, in a very real way, it’s less scary to assume a secret group of powerful leaders is carrying out elements of a grand strategy than it is to acknowledge just how mortal we all truly are. Nowhere is this desire to attribute cause more prevalent than in Jones’s statements that the Sandy Hook shooting of 2012 was staged. In a twisted way, it’s easier to digest the idea that the government is working against its own people to fake these events than it is to look the reality of such a horrific incident in the face. My mother lives just a few miles from that school and I recall with vivid nausea discussing what she saw around town in the immediate aftermath. I’m disgusted and horrified that Alex Jones profited by questioning the grief of the parents that lost children. I’m mortified that many Americans listened to him. Alex Jones is a snake oil salesman (and actually does sell supplements that are also bullshit), and it’s terrible that so many people are in the market for what he’s selling.
With that clear, I’m not so sure that throwing him off the internet does anyone any good.
Let’s address the idea that banning Alex Jones from YouTube, Facebook, and iTunes will somehow stifle the voice of white nationalism, conservative extremism, or hate mongering conspiracy bullshit. That concept alone presupposes the idea that these concepts originate or germinate under Jones, which is, in my assessment, a vast overestimation of Jones’s creativity or sway over that particular subculture. Jones is perhaps the most mainstream voice associated with these undesirable elements of our society, but it would be a mistake to assume that these elements prize mainstream anything. The very nature of this sort of subversive counter-culture means those interested assume society, corporations and the government want them silenced. Jones repackages conspiracy theories and rumors under the guise of original thought, and large portions of the internet then credit him with the idea simply because it’s where they heard them first.
Jones didn’t invent the idea of the Sandy Hook shooting being a “false flag” operation, he’s just the guy most of you heard say it out loud. Silencing him gives him credibility in that corner of the internet and American culture — and as more and more Americans begin to recognize the level of control social media platforms can exercise over the news and information we see, more Americans will start to wonder about the voices being silenced. Banning Alex Jones will force him to find new channels for distribution, sure, but it also gives him control of the narrative.
“My truth is so powerful that large corporations that sell your privacy are now trying to silence me,” Jones will triumphantly announce to his fans. When your entire business model is based on selling the idea that you’re the lone purveyor of truth with the world out to get you, being thrown off of popular social media platforms provides you with the evidence you need to claim you were right all along.
Without Jones, Twitter won’t become a peaceful place. Conspiracy theories won’t evaporate from Reddit. White nationalists will go on chanting in polo shirts and trolls on Facebook will keep on trolling like they always have. Jones didn’t create any of that, he was riding the tidal wave of counter-culture outrage the internet has cultivated. Pulling Jones out of that wave won’t do anything to the wave itself, it just limits one guy’s ability to ride it.
Now, I know some of you are saying that YouTube, Apple, Facebook and others are all private companies that have every right to ban Jones — and you’re right. I don’t contest that (in fact, I welcome a socially self-policing society) but calling on these platforms to ban an individual is not real self-policing. Instead of shouting at lawmakers to pass a law, we’re shouting at corporations to pass a policy, and all the while continuing to simply outsource “progress” to some governing body so we can wash our hands of our nation’s issues after we do our part in the hashtag wars. You get a sense of accomplishment when you join the chorus of posts and Tweets demanding Alex Jones be stricken from the digital record and then see it happen — and it’s that false sense of accomplishment people have come to covet rather than actual lasting cultural progress.
So, while the internet congratulates itself for limiting the reach of one guy that has even admitted that his over-the-top claims are part of a character he plays, I don’t mourn the loss of crazy on my favorite social media platforms — but I do worry that this is what we call progress nowadays. We demand that everyone be heard, then silence those we don’t like. We demand responsibility from our corporations and governments, then ask them to take on ours as well.
We demand so very much and yet are willing to do so very little. My Facebook feed won’t look any different with Alex Jones gone because I never clicked “like” in the first place but if someone’s out there looking for the narratives he’s peddling, all we’ve collectively accomplished is forcing that misguided fool to click on the next link down on the list — because Alex Jones doesn’t have a monopoly on crazy, he’s just got a monopoly on our attention. Alex Jones is just the local drug dealer — but we’re so excited about busting him that we’re ignoring the cartel.
And as a final goodbye to the crackpot that deserves whatever he gets, here’s the best video of Alex Jones to be found on YouTube before or after he was banned:
Featured image: Alex Jones protesting in Dallas, TX. | By Sean P. Anderson [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons