Alex Jones, Charles Johnson and Lara Loomer, three self-proclaimed pillars of conservative thought online, spent last week on the sidelines of congressional intelligence hearings on social media’s role in election meddling.
They hoped to garner attention and support from congresspeople after getting suspended or banned from a variety of social media platforms. Depending on where you get your information, the trio are either white supremacists contributing to the spread of unfounded conspiracy theory or the last bastions of conservative free speech.
Regardless of why they were suspended or banned, the more pertinent line of inquiry is why corporations should care at all about suspending or banning anyone for any reason at any time. The platforms belong to the parent corporations and courts have bestowed on corporate persons, as an entity apart and separate from the people who run them, most of the rights granted to those of us who arrived through the birth canal.
The journey to corporate personhood began in 1868 when headnote attached to a Supreme Court decision claiming the Court felt corporations fell under some of the equal protection rights granted by the 14th Amendment – an amendment meant to redress some of the most egregious echoes of slavery. The court affirmed the concept two years later, has reaffirmed it repeatedly ever since and, more recently, started down a path of more expansive corporate liberty. In 2010, the Supreme Court decided corporate political speech is protected and, in 2014, provided for corporate exemptions when regulations are deemed offensive to the corporation’s religious beliefs.
Some of the rights were needed to facilitate business, but the ever-widening gyre of corporate personhood makes it difficult to comprehend what standing anyone banned from a social media platform has to appeal such decisions. The corporations can and do enact policies in attempts to mold how their platforms are used, but with so many 1s and 0s flying through the ether at any moment, there is only so much any corporate person can do to separate the wheat from the chaff. They could choose to refrain from such activity completely and there would be relatively minimal repercussions from a legal standpoint.
The humans employed by the corporate persons have taken to likening social media to the new “marketplace of ideas,” albeit one that grew corrupted through the concerted efforts of some users – and their bots – who discovered how to game the system.
However, given that corporate speech is now protected, so is the corporate right to be biased. Shutting down any type of speech a corporate person rules unprofitable is well within its rights on any platform it owns. Legally, it’s no different than an individual choosing Fox News over MSNBC, or vice versa.
All of this sharpens the irony of Jones sitting in the audience quietly pleading for help. During the last campaigns for president, one of the more popular InfoWars merchandise items, the site run by Jones, depicted Hillary Clinton in Joker-esque make-up with the caption “What difference does it make?”
Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it should make a difference where you get your information. It’s critical to making informed decisions about who you want running government because, one day, you might want them to defend your right to access a marketplace of ideas no matter who owns it.