All That and a Bag of Mail

It’s Friday, time for the mailbag.

I’ve spent the past several post-radio show days in a recording studio working on the audio book version of “Republicans Buy Sneakers Too,” and I’m not going to lie, I’m dragging here as the end of the week arrives.

But I’m going to rally and finish strong with the mailbag today.

So here we go:

Lots of you have emailed me a version of this question all week: “What do you think about the Alex Jones banning by Facebook, YouTube and Apple?”

I think it’s an insanely difficult issue. Honestly, I think it’s probably the most difficult issue in our modern era.

As a preliminary point, I’ve never watched an Alex Jones video so I have no idea what he says or does. Based on what I’ve read it seems to me that he’s basically the right wing version of someone like Shaun King, an activist who is skilled at sharing propaganda with his base, which may frequently cross the line from opinion into clear and outright falsehood.

Sometimes those falsehoods can lead to lawsuits, which I think are probably a much better way to attack speech you disagree with than banning people outright.

But it’s important to point out that Jones’s politics have nothing to do with my analysis here.

I’m doing my best to think about this issue in a purely content neutral perspective.

The big question that’s being asked here — and, again, I don’t think there is an easy answer to this at all — is what obligation does a major tech platform have to ensure that their platform isn’t being used to spread falsehoods?

Now, when you unpack this question, you can see several challenges. First, what’s a falsehood? Second, who decides what is and what is not false? Third, what if part of a statement is false, but part of it is true?

When you begin to unpack this question I think you see the difficulties inherent in setting forth a clear and consistent content neutral policy for all users regardless of their political persuasions.

Once you ban one person from your service then you’ve set a precedent. And once you’ve set a precedent then everyone else starts to apply that precedent to other political speech. In our modern era that frequently leads to Jones’s supporters pointing to liberal activists and demanding to know why they are allowed to remain online.

Once you’ve set one precedent for banning it becomes harder and harder to determine who fits and my fear is it leads to an overly expansive version of content restriction on the platforms, which detracts from debate on important issues at stake in our country.

Now many people have focused on the first amendment when it comes to Alex Jones, but it’s important to recognize that the first amendment isn’t technically at play here because the government isn’t involved. These companies all allow us to use their products based on a licensing agreement and if we violate that licensing agreement they can kick us off. It’s not a completely fair analogy because we aren’t employees of the tech companies, but it’s not all that different from an NFL team requesting its players stand for the national anthem. You have a first amendment right, but you don’t have a first amendment right to speak while in uniform at work. In other words, the NFL doesn’t have to lend their platform to a player to say whatever they want if it’s bad for business just like a tech company doesn’t have to let Alex Jones use their platform if it’s bad for their business.

Where this gets more complicated for me is I think we’re close to the point where Facebook, YouTube, Apple, and Twitter have basically become public communication utilities. Yes, they are for profit businesses, but they are also integral to modern business and modern communication. It’s very hard to share your message if all four of those sites suddenly shut you down. (This doesn’t even consider how much like collusion it appears to be that Facebook, Apple and YouTube all acted nearly in simultaneous fashion to shut down Jones.)

So while the first amendment may not be directly impacted because the government isn’t involved here, public discourse is certainly impacted, which is where some of the confusion lies. I’m also troubled by the idea that Jones — or anyone else — can have spent years developing a following on a platform and then the platform can end his ability to reach that audience. To me, honestly, there’s a decent property rights claim here. If Facebook, for instance, suddenly took away my account and didn’t allow me to reach my audience, that would be a tremendously negative impact for my business and my voice in sports media and beyond. So I do think there’s an interesting claim here of a property right of sorts which would also implicate the first amendment, contract law, and the like.

Regardless, let me return to my suggestion that Facebook, Apple, Google/YouTube, and Twitter are akin to modern day public utilities and let me make a further utility analogy for you here — would you have a problem if, say, a cell phone or a phone company decided they didn’t want to provide you phone service because they didn’t like what you were saying on your phone conversations or even what websites you visited from your cell phone? How about if an Internet service provider wouldn’t provide Internet access to your home because they knew you were going online and saying vile and hateful comments which hurt other people’s feelings?

I think just about everyone would have an issue with a phone/cell phone or Internet company refusing you access to either the phone line or the Internet — absent you doing illegal activity on either and being in jail, restricted via probation or the like. (The state can restrict you in these circumstances.) Yet those phone and Internet companies are for profit companies as well. And I’m inclined to see Facebook, YouTube and Apple as very similar to phone lines in our modern communication era.

That, in conjunction with the difficulty of applying the policy, is why I think Twitter, which hasn’t banned Alex Jones, is correct in this case. I don’t agree with banning him. Furthermore, since banning him his audience has grown. That is, all of the media coverage about his banning has led people to seek him out online and consume his content even more.

So if the goal was to make Jones less influential it has actually backfired, he’s never gotten more free media attention.

Which is why I wouldn’t have banned him.

Having said that, my kids are very active on YouTube and the way the YouTube algorithm works sometimes they end up on autoplay videos that I would vastly prefer they not watch. Often these videos are spreading hoaxes or things that are untrue. For instance, my boys have watched tons of videos about megalodons — the prehistoric sharks — which suggest the megs are still alive today. That’s relatively benign, but they’re only seven and ten. What might happen when they are 15 and 18?

The other day my seven year old said he’d been watching a YouTube about people sharing their past lives. And he completely, 100% believed it was true. My boys are so young they tend to believe what they see in videos online. Now I’m able to tell them when they share false information that they’ve seen online with me, but I’m pretty well educated. (And they may only be sharing a portion of what they see online.) Most Americans aren’t. Worse, most Americans like the basic logic and intelligence to read something and discern whether there is any truth to it or not, particularly when that information confirms their preexisting world view.

Now you can say I need to be monitoring everything my kids watch online all day long, but I think that’s virtually impossible, no matter how good of a parent you are. The other option, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad one, is restrict all access to tech devices and the Internet until your kids are 13 or 14, but then you have to deal with the fact that all of their friends use the devices. Do you really want to make your kid like the one kid in your school who didn’t have TV when we were young? I’d rather teach them how to handle technology at young ages. (Not to mention, being able to use technology well is probably going to be integral to their adult lives.)

My inclination is to let everything exist and hope that the marketplace of ideas wins and that good content wins over bad content. And if that isn’t happening, I would want the tech companies to examine their algorithms and do a better job of promoting content from providers who are consistently promoting education content, regardless of content. But even that is a tremendous challenge because then it requires a values judgment of sorts when it comes to what “good content” is.

Which is why, in the end, I’d just let everyone keep using the platforms.

To be honest, I’m more troubled by anonymous users of social media platforms than I am people using their own names who are sharing information I disagree with.

“Lots of you: what about the NFL players kneeling for the anthem last night and Trump Tweeting about it anew? What should the NFL do?”

This is the third straight year we’ve had the same question.

I spend quite a bit of time writing about it in my new book, “Republicans Buy Sneakers Too,” which is out in a month — yes, I really am going to promote this all the time so you might as well go buy it — but I want to share this survey of the most polarizing brands in America:

Look at this list. Of the top 15 most polarizing brands in America, news and media organizations are 12 of them, Donald Trump’s own hotel is one of them, and the NFL is at number six on this list.

This is important because the NFL is the only company in the top 15 that is attempting to appeal to everyone regardless of their politics. (Chick fil A is tied for 15th on the polarizing list, but politics just hasn’t hurt them at all because it has been connected to religion and because their chicken sandwiches and service are so good. On top of that being religious has actually helped them target their market even better to the point that the average Chick fil A restaurant, which does $4 million a year in revenue, makes twice as much as any other fast food restaurant per store partly because of its deep connections to churches in their communities. That is, conservative people feel good about eating here because of their politics and chicken sandwiches and liberals eat there because their chicken sandwiches are so good they don’t care about their politics. This is confirmed by the fact that Chick fil A’s favorability rating among liberals is roughly the same as the NFL’s is among liberals. That is, even the part of the country that doesn’t like Chick Fil A as much still likes Chick fil A as much as the people who like the NFL the most).

And, alarmingly for the league, the NFL stands out as a brand on this list who owes its entire success as a business to the fact that it’s trying to appeal to everyone. Conservatives have just as negative of an opinion of the NFL right now as they do of CNN. And unlike CNN or Fox News or MSNBC, which can run a solid business appealing to one party, the NFL’s business relies upon everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Yikes.

Regardless of what you think of the protests anyone with an ounce of business acumen would agree it is absolutely awful for the NFL to be this high on the list.

They have to fix this and they have to fix it now.

So far they haven’t been able to do it and I’m afraid we’re set up for another full year of anthem protests, Donald Trump Tweets reacting to anthem protests, and declining ratings and interest. Remember, this is a winning political issue for Trump. Why would he stop making an issue of it? Moreover, unlike the NFL Donald Trump only has to appeal to have the country to get elected. If only Republicans or Democrats liked the NFL, the league’s business would be in a freefall.

If I were Roger Goodell I would announce today that every player was standing for the national anthem, but if they didn’t stand that every player who kneeled would be fined $50,000 and that money would go to a charity supporting wounded warriors.

Good luck to the NFL Player’s Association challenging that policy in court.

Jon writes:

“Oh wise King Solomon of the Internet,

With the recent revelations about Ohio State covering up domestic abuse on their football coaching staff I got to thinking how in the past eight years you have had a number of major coverups in the athletic departments of BIG Ten schools. You’ve had Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State concealing horrific crimes to preserve the reputation of the University. Do you think this is all a coincidence or is it that the BIG Ten has a systemic issue with athletic departments wielding too much power and not being beholden to the University. People will often accuse the SEC of a win at all cost attitude but the biggest scandal the SEC has had recently was Hugh Freeze’s issues, while bad is nothing compared to the horrific crimes that have been covered up in the BIG TEN.”

Yeah, there’s no doubt that Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State have all had very ugly issues in the past few years. (The Ohio State wrestling story is actually much much more significant than the Urban Meyer mess.) But is this coincidence or is there some sort of connection here?

I tend to think this is coincidental.

In other words, would it shock me if a doctor was preying on women at an SEC school the same way was occurring at Michigan State?

Sadly, not really.

I don’t know what procedural safeguards an SEC, ACC, or Big 12 school would have in place that Michigan State didn’t. And, certainly, the lionization of a successful head coach isn’t unique to Penn State. Is there anything short of murder — and maybe not even that if he had a good defense — that would make Alabama remove Nick Saban as head coach?

I think as soon as an SEC, ACC or Big 12 fan tried to make this argument about the Big Ten’s messes, a major issue would be likely to arise on their own campus.

Thanks for reading Outkick and I hope you all have fantastic weekends.

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