There’s no shortage of Republicans who harp about how social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter — those overzealous bastions of Silicon Valley liberalism — are engaged in a conspiratorial plot to muzzle the political speech of those on the right.
On this front, perhaps no politician has been more vocal and sanctimonious than Senator Ted Cruz. And he’s taking his virtuous crusade against Facebook’s political persecution of conservatives to new extremes, by tethering it to a vehement defense of the Austin conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones. When the social media giant decided to temporarily suspend Jones’s personal account in late July, Cruz was moved to speak out.
Predictably, he took an immense amount of flak for defending Jones, who is currently fighting defamation charges in court for peddling the stunning nonsense that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a government hoax. That’s just one in a long list of vile and dangerous theories — remember Pizzagate? — that Jones’ fringy media empire InfoWars has perpetuated over the years.
Am no fan of Jones — among other things he has a habit of repeatedly slandering my Dad by falsely and absurdly accusing him of killing JFK — but who the hell made Facebook the arbiter of political speech? Free speech includes views you disagree with. #1A https://t.co/RC5v4SHaiI
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) July 28, 2018
But Cruz is not backing down. In an interview with reporters at the conservative Resurgent Gathering in Austin on Saturday, Cruz cast himself as the righteous defender of the First Amendment and free speech — including “offensive speech, bad speech, stupid speech” — and bemoaned liberals and the media for not joining him in his principled defense of Jones. (It’s worth noting that the moderation policies of a private corporation like Facebook are not a First Amendment issue.)
“As the poem goes, you know, first they came for Alex Jones. That does not end well,” Cruz said, referencing the famous Martin Niemöller poem about German cowardice in the face of ascendant Nazism. Apparently in this metaphor, Facebook is the Nazis and Jones is… the socialists?
“There’s a reason I picked someone who has been nasty to me: to illustrate this is not about defending someone I agree with,” Cruz said. “This is a First Amendment principle that everyone has a right to speak, and people can sort out those who are making sense from those who are full of crap.”
Despite the posturing, Cruz has refrained from strongly rebuking Jones, saying his ideas are simply “fringe” and “nutty.” As some have pointed out, Cruz is skilled at reading the political moment and the fact that he’s sticking his neck out for Jones — something even the president, a noted Jones sympathizer, hasn’t even done (yet) — could be a sign that he’s angling to shore up support among the fringe right.
Indeed, Cruz’s support did not go unnoticed. On his show last week, Jones called on his supporters to stand “with us against the unprecedented lying assault as they try to use us as the guinea pig to shut down everybody else. And Ted Cruz and Tucker Carlson, they all get it. But certain people at Fox News and others don’t.”
Cruz insists that his defense of Jones is merely a noble necessity in the larger fight against Facebook’s tyrannical power, of which he has been bravely standing on the frontlines. Back in April, he used his senatorial soapbox to prod Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during testimony on election meddling and privacy concerns about what he called a “pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship.”
Tech companies such as Facebook, Cruz said Saturday, have “a degree of power and an ability to censor that William Randolph Hearst at the height of yellow journalism could never have imagined.”
“They have the ability, if there is a speaker who is disfavored, simply to silence the speaker — to shadowban them so that you might speak but your words float off into oblivion and nobody hears them,” Cruz said. “On the flip side, they have the ability to curate your feed so that every piece of news you hear is news they approve of.”
When asked whether he supports using antitrust laws to break up the biggest tech firms, Cruz said that “it’s an issue policymakers are looking at seriously.”
Cruz has pressed the case that because Facebook and other social media companies have tried to police offensive and harmful content, they are not “neutral public forums” and therefore should not benefit from an exemption in the Communications Decency Act that protects online platforms from liability for users’ libelous speech. Whether they are neutral forums “is a question that has the tech companies very, very nervous,” Cruz said Saturday.
However, it’s been pointed out that the Harvard-educated constitutional lawyer’s legal analysis is highly flawed: Social media companies are in fact encouraged to moderate their platforms, and doing so does not come with an increased risk of liability for their users’ speech. It’s not an either/or.
Cruz hasn’t yet dissuaded media giants, who are under tremendous pressure to crack down on hate speech from alt-right figures like Jones. Late Sunday, Apple announced that it was removing five of InfoWars’ six podcasts from its iTunes library — the most sweeping enforcement action yet taken by a big tech company. On Monday, Spotify announced that it had completely banned “The Alex Jones Show” and Facebook said it had removed four of Jones’ affiliated pages for violating its hate speech policies.
To be clear, Cruz isn’t wrong to be skeptical of the power of social media companies and their ability to censor speech, and there is an important conversation about how to find a balancing point between moderation and free speech. But that’s not what this is.
Cruz could have used any number of other examples of speech he didn’t agree with — say, for instance, NFL team owners prohibiting their players from kneeling in protest during the national anthem — to take a stand on free speech. But by choosing to elevate Jones, someone he knows will only muddy the waters of the free speech debate, Cruz puts his credibility at risk. Cruz seems to have made a calculation to align himself with the feverish fringes of the far right — while wrapping himself in the glory of the First Amendment.
But Cruz is not a man who minds creating glaring hypocrisies and ironies. For example, before convening his 25-minute press gaggle on Saturday, Cruz went on a rant about the media. “There’s a rage on the left and it’s being irresponsibly stoked,” Cruz told conservative commentator Erick Erickson at the Resurgent Gathering to huge applause. “It’s being stoked by the media. I will say that one of the greatest blessings of the Trump presidency is he has finally and, I think permanently, unmasked the media. Do you remember when there used to be people who’d get on TV and try to argue there’s no bias in the media? Nobody even tries to say that anymore. They are so foaming-at-the-mouth unhinged.”
When it comes to the media, it’s almost like Ted Cruz is singing from the same hymnal as Donald Trump and Alex Jones.