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Barbershop: Online Censorship


And finally, today, it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Today, we wanted to talk about two stories that speak to an issue that's close to home here and probably important to anybody listening to this program. That subject is information - true information, false information, offensive information. Who decides what voices we hear and under what circumstances? To talk about this, we've invited Megan McArdle. She's a columnist for The Washington Post. She's here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Welcome.

MEGAN MCARDLE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Charlie Sykes is with us. He hosted a conservative political talk show for many years in Wisconsin. He's an author and a political commentator. He's at member station WUWM. Charlie Sykes, welcome back to you as well.

CHARLIE SYKES: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: And finally, Kara Swisher is the executive editor of the technology news website Recode. She's with us via Skype from San Francisco. Kara Swisher, thank you so much for joining us.

KARA SWISHER: Thanks a lot.

MARTIN: So this whole question of speech and who decides what speech is acceptable in the public square, that is certainly an issue that just doesn't - it just dates back to the history of the republic, doesn't it? But this week, it's back into focus because for one reason being that Twitter announced that it is banning Alex Jones. Alex Jones hosts this three-hour so-called news talk program where he espouses theories like 9/11 being an inside job, that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, that vaccines cause autism.

Now, Apple, Facebook and YouTube have all banned him in one way or another. He is outraged by this and has been very vocal about that. No surprise there. I'm interested in all of your take about this because all of you have been talking a lot about this issue in recent months and years. So, Megan, I'll start with you. What do you take - what's your take on it?

MCARDLE: Well, you know, I think it's complicated because I certainly don't carry any water for Alex Jones, who I think it's terrible. I would not be sad if he never spoke in public again or certainly saying the kinds of things that he does. But I think that we also have to worry. You know, there's the great quote from Juvenal - quis custodiet ipsos custodes - who guards the guardians? And I think that that is a real worry that we're developing with these large tech companies because they do control so much of our communications these days. They're kind of putting media organizations out of business by taking our ad dollars. And if there's only three of them or four of them or a few text-based services where we get all of our information, yes, I don't like Alex Jones, but who's the next person that they decide to ban?

MARTIN: Charlie, what's your take on it?

SYKES: Well, first of all, these are private companies. I tend to be a First Amendment absolutist, but these are private companies. And they have the right to do this as private entities. And I think it's the right thing to do just on the basis of responsibility. You know, Alex Jones is banned because he engages in weapons-grade nutjobbery (ph). You know, he demeans. He demeans and he defames. His stuff is fictional. It is defamatory. The attacks on the families of Sandy Hook is beyond any sort of civilized pale.

So I agree with Megan that you have to be concerned about the concentration of power and ask the question, who's next? But I certainly would not die on the hill of defending Alex Jones because I don't think this is a right-left thing. This is not a hate speech thing. It's just that Alex Jones represents something that is particularly dangerous and vile. And I think it's the responsible and decent thing for companies like Twitter to do. The other way to look at it is, should Twitter and Facebook and Google or whoever - should they be compelled to carry this kind of weapons-grade nutjobbery? And I don't think anyone would argue that that would be a good thing or would be constitutional.

MARTIN: Kara, how is this being viewed in Silicon Valley by the tech companies that you talk with all the time? Because, you know, it's - on the one hand, it's true that so many people are raising questions about, they should be banned? For a lot of other people, it's, what took it so long, what took them so long?

SWISHER: I think absolutely. Look. He broke the rules of these platforms. That's what he did. I mean, everyone's going on about the First Amendment. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequence. He literally broke a rules that these people have put in place that were really clear. And he did it almost persistently and on purpose just to play them.

And so I don't think they have anything to be sorry for. They took a long time, actually, to get him off. And they were very convoluted in doing it, even after he had broken many, many of their rules. And so I think he's not even an edge case in terms of people that shouldn't be on these platforms. And again, they're private platforms. And they - I think most people feel that the tech companies did go over to keep him on there more than trying to throw him off.

MARTIN: Yeah, see - because I feel compelled to say, rules are only valid to the degree that they represent the core values of a society. I mean, at one point, it was a rule that all of us wouldn't have all been in the same room together. I've got to be, you know - so that was a rule at one point, too. So but - so let me ask you this, Kara. Yeah, Kara, why did it take them so long? No, go ahead.

SWISHER: Because they're libertarians. They're very First Amendment absolutists. But the problem is is they make rules that they don't keep in place a lot of the times. Sometimes they do them, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they - so that was the problem. The way they enforce these rules has not been very consistent across time. They have kicked people off these platforms before. Twitter, particularly, kicked off Chuck Johnson, I think, last year.

You know, think about it. When you're saying they're private companies, look, does The New York Times publish Alex Jones? Does it have to? Does it have to be forced to? No, it doesn't want to know. You know, these are media companies. And so why do we go on and on about Facebook doing it when we don't require anybody else to? Because does he have to be on NPR? Did you guys invite him on? No, you didn't. So I think it's a little less complicated than people think it is.

MARTIN: Here is another thing I wanted to bring up, which is something that has always - you know, what happens in New York is - never stays in New York is always like a big to do. But it is still an interesting question. The New Yorker has this - many people, I think, are familiar with, of course, The New Yorker magazine. But they also have a festival, a live events program that I take it has become very popular. They invited Steve Bannon to speak at their annual festival. He is that former - the former White House chief strategist. He's the co-founder of Breitbart, which some people consider, you know, appropriate political speech. Some people feel that they traffic in hate speech as well, obviously. It's a very sort of polarizing entity.

Now, people say that he's been pushing white nationalist ideas and policies and that he should not have been offered this platform. After going back and forth, The New Yorker invited him, then they disinvited him after other people said that they would not come if he was invited. So, Kara Swisher, I want to go to you first on this because you said that you would interview Steve Bannon. Talk to me about your thoughts about this.

SWISHER: Well, I wrote a - I have a column in The New York Times. And I was writing about the fact that I thought that you can't just pretend he doesn't exist, doesn't mean he's going to go away. And I wanted to talk to him largely because he's sort of the one who's been thinking of all these ideas around tech that Donald Trump has been mouthing lately, which is that they need to - that they are biased against conservatives. There's a whole range of things that they're alleging, none of which are true. And so I felt like he should be interviewed. And the issues around The New Yorker are a little more complex because they didn't tell the speakers and everything else. But I certainly think that banning interviewing someone is - my job is to interview people, so I'm not sure people can insist that you not talk to people because they're vile.

MARTIN: So, Charlie, this is interesting because the question was, you know, they certainly are interviewing him in the magazine. I think they have interviewed him before. But the question is, do you invite him to this sort of public event, and does that mean something different? What do you think?

SYKES: Yeah, it does a little bit. And I guess I would go along with the same sort of distinctions that Kara just made here. You know, once again, The New Yorker is a private institution. It has the right to do all of these things. What I found most troubling about this was if you make the decision to feature a speaker or have an interview, stick with it. I mean, maybe that was the right decision. Maybe it was the wrong decision. But the editors seemed to cave into a Twitter mob, and I think that's kind of concerning when you have people who apparently can't make up their minds and do not have the courage of their convictions.

Now, I am certainly not a Steve Bannon fan, but I do think there's a distinction between interviewing him, subjecting him to questions and answers and providing him with a platform. But, again, The New Yorker is not obligated to feature him or to have him at the festival. And basically, I think it was pretty much of a fubar on their part.

MARTIN: Megan, what do you think about this? And all of it, I mean, the Twitter mob argument, you're certainly no stranger to that. Actually, nobody in this conversation - no one in this conversation is a stranger to the Twitter swarm. What - Megan, what are you thinking?

MCARDLE: Look. I think that we should not empower Twitter mobs. I mean, especially because the thing about Twitter mobs is they feel totally overwhelming when they're happening to you. And it's really hard to remember that you're talking about a number of people that would not fill the stadium at a Texas high school football game. And so - right? And companies will wildly overreact to these actually quite small numbers of people.

That wasn't the situation The New Yorker was in. The New Yorker was putting on a conference, and a bunch of their high-profile guests said, I will not come. I think they're within their rights, but at the same time, in the same way that there's a difference between my just not ever having invited you for dinner and then inviting you and then being like, no, you can't come, you're not allowed to be in my house - there is a difference between disinviting - not inviting someone and disinviting them. And conservatives were indeed going to interpret that and did as a slap in the face. And...

MARTIN: See, that's something I want to hear about. Like, why? I mean, there are certain people that, you know, why did conservatives choose to see that as a slap in the face if conservatives are also bending over backwards to tell us why they don't associate with Steve Bannon?

MCARDLE: Well, we should be clear. Never Trump conservatives did not indeed interpret that. Never Trump conservatives, you know, we're sort of conflicted because a lot of Never Trump conservatives have been subject to that same kind of treatment at say, you know, Kevin Williamson at The Atlantic and other places. But people who - there are a lot of people in this country who still like Trump, who still like Steve Bannon. And if you disinvite him, it's a kind of another sign the coastal elites are not going to truck with lowlifes like you. And while I do not like Steve Bannon and think he is a lowlife, those dividing messages getting us wider and wider.

This is - to some extent, not only, I think, but has contributed to why we've got Trump in the first place. And so I worry about that. The people inside the bubble are trying to signal, are trying to shun him in order to signal, like, we're not normalizing Trump. This isn't OK. The people outside the bubble already don't care. And, in fact, every time you signal we hate these people, they like them more. And so I think, you know, don't invite him or stick with it once you have, but don't incentivize Twitter mobs to form up and collude to destroy you.

MCARDLE: Gee, now I can't decide if I'm going to that festival or not. Not that I was invited - because I wasn't, so they couldn't disinvite me. That's Megan McArdle. She's a columnist for The Washington Post. That's Charlie Sykes. He's an author and political commentator. Kara Swisher is the executive editor of Recode. Thank you all so much for talking with us today.

SYKES: Thank you.

MCARDLE: Thanks for having me.

SWISHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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