“Hottest take of the year,” one Twitter user noted upon seeing a CNN essay published earlier this week.
It wasn’t meant as a compliment. The essay, included in an opinion “roundup” of viewpoints titled “We need to talk about Alex Jones,” prompted swift and fierce reaction when it was circulated on social media.
It wasn’t because people were defending Alex Jones or his conspiracy theories. It was because CNN columnist Rafia Zakaria (no relation to host Fareed Zakaria) compared “hate speech” to “terrorism.”
“Hate speech” is a fuzzy and often criticized term. While the intention behind the legal definition — protecting minorities from bigotry and violence — may be laudable, even the American Bar Association has noted, “Developing such policies runs the risk of limiting an individual’s ability to exercise free speech.”
That’s in addition to the problems when media platforms like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Google use such discredited organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center to act as arbiters of what constitutes “hate speech.”
Zakaria pushed the envelope when she compared Jones’ “detestable anti-Islam propaganda” to the “Material Support for Terrorism” statute, which describes crimes prohibited by the Patriot Act.
“Sadly, domestic terrorism, or Jones’ dangerous speech, in which he claims that he is in a holy war against Islam, is not prosecuted under that statute,” the writer, a Muslim-American, claimed. “This is a failing that has permitted the proliferation of platforms such as InfoWars, their presence on popular platforms a legitimization of sorts for their content.”
She does not qualify what “platforms” are like InfoWars. (Other media reports intentionally have referenced InfoWars in the same breath as right-wing blogs and mainstream conservative websites.)
The Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University issued a report in August 2017 that does so explicitly.
“In this recently emerged universe, Breitbart stands at the center of a right-wing media ecosystem and is surrounded by sites like Fox News, The Daily Caller, the Gateway Pundit, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars, Conservative Treehouse, and Truthfeed,” according to the report’s analysis.
On Monday, Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) issued a thinly veiled threat that the media platforms that banned InfoWars — Apple, Facebook, and YouTube — were not finished with banning websites yet.
“InfoWars is the tip of a giant iceberg of hate and lies that uses sites like Facebook and YouTube to tear our nation apart,” he wrote on Twitter. “These companies must do more than take down one website. The survival of our democracy depends on it.”
The implications of Zakaria’s comparison of “hate speech” to “terrorism” were not lost on Twitter commenters.
“This is an insane and evil view that CNN is promoting,” national security consultant David Reaboi remarked.
“They started with speech can be violence, melded that with only whites can be racist and now whatever they disagree with or don’t like can be ‘terrorism,'” another noted.
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, explained his reasoning on Tuesday for continuing to allow Jones to use the social media platform.
“We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or InfoWars yesterday,” he said on Twitter. “We know that’s hard for many, but the reason is simple: He hasn’t violated our rules. We’ll enforce if he does.”
Here’s his full tweet:
We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or Infowars yesterday. We know that’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules. We’ll enforce if he does. And we’ll continue to promote a healthy conversational environment by ensuring tweets aren’t artificially amplified.
— jack (@jack) August 8, 2018
Dorsey also said, “Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s critical [that] journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.”
Interesting development: Just two days after Google, Facebook and Apple banned InfoWars content from their sites, the company’s app has “become one of the hottest in the country,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday.