The AU$1.5 billion dollar payout that conspiracy-monger Alex Jones is being forced to pay to the families devastated by the Sandy Hook massacre is the check on “free speech” that we all need to discuss.
The families who lost their primary school children were hounded by Jones’s audience. People disturbed their funerals. Some urinated on the children’s graves and threatened to dig up the coffins. Bereaved families were barraged with abuse, threatened and stalked.
As horrendous as the consequences of Jones’s conspiracy theory about “crisis actors” faking mass shootings are, other conspiracy theories amplified by social media are creating far broader damage.
Over the most intense phase of the pandemic, people trapped at home were radicalised into embracing the QAnon conspiracy. This idea that “elites” (usually coded as Jewish) are stealing children, farming them for adrenochrome, or even eating them, is not new. It is a distortion of the “Blood Libel” that provoked slaughters of Jewish individuals and communities from Medieval times. The readiness of the commentators further right than Fox News to embrace Kanye’s recent threats towards Jewish people shows how close to the surface this old bigotry continues.
These conspiracies made the attempt to minimise the deaths attributable to the covid pandemic impossible. The elites apparently invented the imaginary pandemic and the maligned vaccines. Limiting the impact on the vulnerable and on medical staff was made extraordinarily difficult. Hundreds of thousands died unnecessarily. Now we face medical systems broken across the wealthy world where exhausted nurses, doctors and other staff look to less stressful careers, where they will not have to tolerate wild abuse.
Donald Trump became the hero of these conspiracy theories. He was (and is) secretly about to bring the Storm which will overthrow the corrupt elites and free the children. For many, this has become a kind of religious belief. Trump is argued to be the son of God.
QAnon has caused some murders by unwell believers, but it has also fed into the mass of right wing conspiracy thinking uniting Pentecostal Christians with white supremacists and Mens Rights Activist misogynists. All these threads were on display in the attempt to overthrow the peaceful transfer of power marked by the attack on the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2020.
This populist belief that the elites robbed Trump of his 2020 victory is not just the self-radicalising that caused so many deaths amongst the paranoid unvaxxed. The belief in the theft of the election has become accepted fact (actual or tribal) on the right in America. It has been fostered by politicians and media figures giving false credibility to Trump’s nonsense. Politicians who stepped away from Trump on the 6th of January quickly fell back into line, saying privately that they feared the death threats against themselves and their family from their radicalised base.
With floods besetting Australia’s east coast over and again, with Pakistan recently one third under water, the impact of the climate crisis is becoming ever more apparent. Temperatures in the Arctic circle have been up to 40ºc above normal this year. The threat to giant ice shelves is growing. For the conspiracy world, however, this isn’t the result of carbon emissions. This is geo engineering by the (Jewish) elites. Check any news organisation posts about floods on social media, and there will be comment after comment about the elites seeding clouds and creating the inundations to drive ordinary Australians out of their towns to build “smart cities.”
The fossil fuel lobby’s decades of disinformation on the threat posed by carbon emissions prevented us acting while we could have done it without too much disruption. Now any change needs to be so dramatic that vested interests cannot countenance it. The eruption of the “conspiracy smoothie” into climate issues makes momentum for change all that more elusive. The stakes could not be higher.
It is hardly surprising that the usual commentators in News Corp erase all the monumental costs of disinformation in their pontifications on the topic. Their paid purpose is to produce culture war material to enrage their readership into an aggrieved “conservative” cultural identity. They are a substantial part of the problem.
Jacinda Ardern’s recent speech to the UN that addressed the dangers of disinformation was greeted in The Australian as the rise of “iron fist of authoritarianism that lurks within the velvet glove of wokeness.” The UK’s Brendan O’Neill performed horror that free speech is under attack, that “tyranny has had a makeover.” He warned: “If you want a picture of the future, don’t imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever – imagine Jacinda Ardern putting her arm around your shoulder and telling you you’re going to have to sacrifice your liberty to save the world from chaos.”
Nick Cater, of the Menzies Research Centre (an ultra free-market lobby group) described the speech as the work of the “militant left” which has “marched us all the way to dystopia.” He pretended that the irrelevance of “Hunter Biden’s laptop” that the radical right used to try to destroy Joe Biden’s electability is a genuine issue. Cater asserted failing to pick up the non story was proof that the left was destroying free speech. According to Cater’s prose, “we are already living in the dystopia” that Ardern apparently pursues.
These pundits pretend free speech is still a matter of considered pamphlets, educated men expounding ideas at coffee shops, oration at Speakers’ Corner. Sure the antisemitism spread in pulpits led to the deaths of many Jewish people, but the dangers of unrestricted speech did not destroy the comforts of those men who devised the usual defences of “free speech.”
We already monitor speech, too often in favour of protecting the very “conservative” men that these columnists support. Freedom of speech does not mandate that anyone is entitled to amplification, but they believe they are owed their many microphones. Any pushback is described as being cancelled, a message broadcast on those many platforms. We do not live in a free-speech paradise, and the reactions of these columnists to trivial speech acts by people they describe as “woke” illustrate how partial their defence of free speech actually is. The hysteria that resulted from Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s insignificant tweet on Anzac Day was so horrendous that she ended up leaving the country. The constant barrage of vile abuse that Julia Gillard absorbed from the public was drummed up by similar pundits. Her famous misogyny speech was the result of so much more than the prejudice of some parliamentarians.
Alex Jones facing a monumental payout is the check on free speech that these pundits of the right would approve. The agony of the families robbed of their children is of no relevance to these writers. A defeated Liberal MP reiterated on television this week that elections are the proper way to deal with allegedly corrupt abuses of the electoral processes such as massive porkbarrelling. The problem remains that the porkbarrelling, or other corruption, has already bought victory by the time the voters know, if they ever come to know.
Leaving the patrolling of free speech to repercussions is advice that is easily delivered by those least likely to be shot at prayer in their mosque or synagogue. Ardern’s request to the UN for the communities of the world to debate how we deal with the eruption of conspiracy toxicity and hate that the internet has fostered is not unreasonable. Nobody would argue that it is an easy problem to solve, but it is one we need to be allowed to discuss without being labelled “fascist.”