Senator Marco Rubio was holding court with reporters outside a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing when Infowars publisher Alex Jones confronted him. The committee had been grilling the Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and the Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on their companies’ role in spreading disinformation to impact elections. Jones had been in the audience, and he wanted to know why Rubio wasn’t pursuing the tech executives for purportedly censoring conservative voices online.
The altercation was surreal. Jones implied Rubio was a hypocrite for worrying about international electoral instability when “the Democrats are purging conservatives” from social-media platforms through supposed “shadow banning,” a name for hiding certain content without users’ knowledge. At different points during the incident, Jones called Rubio a “frat boy,” a “snake,” and a “little gangster thug.”
Rubio denied knowing who Jones even is, a slight that appeared to infuriate the blustery propagandist, who engaged with the senator as if he were inveighing into his studio camera. “They demonized me in these very hearings, and then he plays dumb,” Jones complained, elbowing his way into the line of a camera while Rubio smirked in real or mock confusion. But after Jones touched Rubio on the shoulder, the senator’s smile wilted. “Don’t touch me,” he warned. “I’ll get arrested?” Jones egged on, to which Rubio replied no, “I’ll take care of it myself.” Jones didn’t miss a beat: “Oh, he’ll beat me up,” he concluded, voice rising in contemptuous curiosity, before pointing at Rubio and digging in again, “You’re not going to silence me.”
The hallway performance perfectly punctuated the hearing’s meek exploration of the calamity that is contemporary life on social media. The technology executives were answering, if weakly, for helping support websites like Infowars and crusaders like Jones. And if not Jones himself, then others who hide their deception more adeptly. The spat was a microcosm of the internet itself: A place where widespread adoption of platforms that give anyone unfettered access to almost everyone else, a place that gives people the sense that they deserve an audience, with anyone, on any topic, all the time.
The Senate hearing had trod familiar ground, with Congress trying to hold powerful tech companies accountable for the havoc they have wreaked on global democracy. Sandberg and Dorsey had agreed to come, at least—Google failed to send a senior representative, a rebuff for committee members, including leaders Richard Burr and Mark Warner, who issued sneers on the matter during the session. Rubio, too, took aim at Google, speculating that “maybe it’s ‘cause they’re arrogant,” before turning to Sandberg and Dorsey with questions about how social media, while “largely seen as a tool for incredible good,” also “can be manipulated.”
Sandberg defended Facebook’s efforts to curtail that manipulation, even while offering milquetoast responses to senators’ interrogation about its spread on the company’s platforms. When asked why the company would allow U.S. citizens to claim that victims of a domestic mass shooting were actually actors, Sandberg explained how Facebook used third-parties to verify facts and demoted content marked questionable. “We warn you if you are about to share it, we warn you if you have shared it,” she explained, adding that the service also shows related articles to surface “alternative facts.” That’s a phrase made famous by Kellyanne Conway, who used it as a euphemism for falsehoods. Whether or not Sandberg meant the term the way Conway did is immaterial—the point is that it had invaded her brain sufficiently that she uttered it in the first place. That’s the thing about bad ideas: They seep into the ground as they spread, poisoning it.
Dorsey, meanwhile, said Twitter aspired to be a “public square,” while also admitting that the company had been “unprepared and ill-equipped for the immensity of the problems” it had encountered. He cut a strange demeanor throughout testimony, speaking in what seemed like an affectless manner. That, combined with his popped collar, long beard, and small nose ring gave him a kind of Civil War Boho sensibility. After the hearing, Dorsey tweeted an image of his heart rate during the day’s testimony, which peaked at 109, a downright athletic figure for someone being grilled before his government and the world.
The whole affair felt like the most apt, if tepid, essay on the relative powers of government and technology companies. Congress could summon tech’s leaders, but it couldn’t make them yield, as if subjects to kings. Google was brazen, not bothering to show up at all. But Facebook and Twitter didn’t deserve the praise they received, since Sandberg and Dorsey offered the minimum during their testimony. They took some lumps, admitted in a generally empty way to their faults, vowed to do better, and mostly just waited for the hearing to end so they could return to their lives.
Given Jones’s later skirmish with Rubio, it was darkly poetic that Sandberg committed the alternate-facts flub in response to a question about mass-shooting crisis actors. That’s one of the more famous affronts for which Jones and his Infowars operation is known. Jones has been battling defamation claims from Sandy Hook victims’ families. Last month, Infowars content was removed from major online platforms, including those managed by Apple, Facebook, and YouTube. The erasure has severely reduced Jones’s reach, a feat that proponents of “deplatforming” have long argued offers the most effective way to deal with trolls, liars, and other scoundrels.
That’s the context in which Jones pounced on Rubio: incensed over his deplatforming, perturbed about shadow banning, convinced that he is owed his audience on iTunes or Spotify. And not just there, either, but everywhere. In your Twitter feed or YouTube recommendations. Right there in the hallway of the Senate office building, even, where lawmakers, staffers, reporters, and—thanks to social media—millions of ordinary people who watched a recording of the spectacle were subjected to Jones’s aggressive attempt to be noticed once more.
Sandberg’s and Dorsey’s performances were hardly satisfying. The architects of social-media have little to worry about—their power is real, and affirmed, and difficult to dismantle. When they do capitulate, it’s usually for business reasons, not for political or ethical ones. For instance, later in the day yesterday, in testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dorsey characterized shadow banning as a bug, which had “unfairly filtered 600,000 accounts.” Despite Rubio’s taunts toward Jones, some members of Congress had the same concerns about internet companies’ purported censorship of conservatives, an idea that had been aired in the day’s hearings. When push comes to shove, social-media services are purpose-built to give people the sense that they are important, that they must be heard.
The output of that system is not just Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who boasts an actual following. It is also everyone else. It is the guys who slide into DMs with creepy asterisks. It is the harassers who plague roughly half, at least, of internet users writ large. It is the friend on Facebook whose political intervention descends into hate, as so many of them do. It is the filter bubbles that ensure that you never see those positions in the first place. It is the neighbors on Nextdoor, even, who might issue complaints up and down the block from the comfort of bed. It is the people who will tweet or email me when I share this very article, whether in agreement or rejoinder, because they believe they are owed an audience with me simply by virtue of the fact that they are on the internet, and I am on the internet, and what did I expect, anyway?
“The deplatforming didn’t work,” Jones sneered, almost melodically, as he continued to badger Senator Rubio yesterday. He’s wrong and he’s right. Infowars’s traffic appears to have plummeted after YouTube, Facebook, and others cut him off. But in a phenomenon sometimes known as the Streisand Effect, Jones’s supposed censure has also amplified Jones’s reach. And for their part, the tech companies enjoying celebration, from some avenues, for reducing his audience had been profiting from Jones’s performances for years before they changed their tune.
By the afternoon, Jones had made his way outside the building, where he cupped his hands like a carnival barker and hawked his wares to his supporters—or anyone within earshot. It’s easy to hate a conspiracy-theory propagandist. But in a way, Jones is just the most obvious, odious example. The internet’s premise is that everyone and everything warrants an audience, all the time. “The fundamental view is that that [bad] speech can often be countered by good speech,” Sandberg testified before the Senate committee. “If somebody says something is not true or say it incorrectly, somebody has the opportunity to say, you’re wrong, this is true. That’s what we’re working on through our systems.” If there’s a problem with Facebook or Twitter, the answer is—more Facebook or Twitter!
Social media’s impact on global democracy has made it seem like the technology, once good, as Rubio observed, can also be used for harm. But maybe the wickedness was there even before the good. The internet’s sin isn’t giving one or another person a mouthpiece with which to reach an audience with lies. It’s giving everyone the impression that they are owed an audience with anyone, with everyone else, at any time, or all the time. A lot of people might be able to agree that Alex Jones shouldn’t be talking to anyone, much at all. But few are ready to cop to a more difficult truth: People just aren’t meant to talk to one another this much in the first place.
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