December 11, 2023 - 1:40pm

Elon Musk has reinstated the X account of notorious InfoWars host Alex Jones. Banned in 2018 for claiming that the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked, Jones was subsequently ordered to pay $1.5 billion in damages to victims’ family members. On Saturday, Musk allowed him to return to the platform following a user poll. 

This isn’t the first Musk-era unbanning: he has also brought back Donald Trump, and manosphere influencer Andrew Tate, among others. The tech boss has made much of his support for free speech, telling advertisers now boycotting X to “go f*** yourselves”, and saying on Saturday that while he vehemently disagrees with Jones’s statements on Sandy Hook, “are we a platform that believes in freedom of speech or are we not?” 

The day after reinstating the InfoWars host, Musk celebrated by joining a highly attended X Space which included Jones, Tate and presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. The message is clear: Musk is intentionally treating X as a counter to the increasingly heavily-policed moral consensus that has emerged since Anglosphere public discourse transitioned definitively to a digital-first model. 

But what’s significant about this latest unbanning is less Musk’s view on freedom of expression than the subversive relation Jones’s mode of speech has to many of the prior assumptions on which “free speech” rests. 

In order to make sense at all, the idea that free speech will make the world better presumes the speakers themselves are (broadly speaking) sufficiently rational, logical, and persuadable to be willing to work collaboratively on uncovering the truth. But Jones commands a vast audience less for delivering facts than communicating a vibe. He is decried as a “conspiracy theorist”, and it’s usually easy enough to debunk his statements at a factual level. But his pronouncements make a great deal more sense when one realises that they are intended less literally, in the rational register of reasoned debate, than in one closer to that employed by someone presenting as a preacher or prophet. 

Jones is just one person, but in social media platform terms he is a very big beast. And if one views so-called “conspiracy theories” less as lies than as allegories, it becomes clear that Jones’s popularity and reinstatement signal the unstoppable return of allegory, to a public square still purportedly governed by rationalistic norms. That is, as yet another sign of the broader shift in Anglophone digital-era public discourse, away from a conception of truth that prioritises what is viewed as objective and verifiable, and towards one that prioritises what feels morally or emotionally resonant. 

This is both enabled and accelerated by the digital transition. If words on a screen can be repeatedly, invisibly altered, do they point to anything stable or true? Or do they just reflect what “they” want you to believe? Perhaps it’s no coincidence that among the generation of Americans most accustomed to the fluidity of digital print, one in five thinks the Holocaust is a myth. Flat earth theories are making a comeback, while another campaign half-seriously claims that “Birds Aren’t Real”. 

It isn’t simply a fringe phenomenon: it holds across the political spectrum. Take propositions such as gender self-identification, for example, which are treated on large portions of the Left as in some sense morally true, despite being objectively absurd. 

Notwithstanding the lamentations of those who still value facts and logic, and the best efforts of (often themselves highly politically suspect) fact-checking bodies, this direction of travel is now well-established. Jones’s reinstatement on X will turn up the allegorical temperature. 

In the immediate future, this all suggests that the 2024 US election will be even louder and more unhinged than the last two — and even more powered by prophecy, vibes, and the mercurial moods of the digital mob. In the longer term, it points to something still more unsettling: a global superpower that combines an increasingly obvious lack of public interest in logic, objectivity, or rational calculations with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.