Senator Marco Rubio was holding court with reporters outside a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing when Infowars publisher Alex Jones confronted him. The committee had been grilling the Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and the Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on their companies’ role in spreading disinformation to impact elections. Jones had been in the audience, and he wanted to know why Rubio wasn’t pursuing the tech executives for purportedly censoring conservative voices online.
The altercation was surreal. Jones implied Rubio was a hypocrite for worrying about international electoral instability when “the Democrats are purging conservatives” from social-media platforms through supposed “shadow banning,” a name for hiding certain content without users’ knowledge. At different points during the incident, Jones called Rubio a “frat boy,” a “snake,” and a “little gangster thug.”
Rubio denied knowing who Jones even is, a slight that appeared to infuriate the blustery propagandist, who engaged with the senator as if he were inveighing into his studio camera. “They demonized me in these very hearings, and then he plays dumb,” Jones complained, elbowing his way into the line of a camera while Rubio smirked in real or mock confusion. But after Jones touched Rubio on the shoulder, the senator’s smile wilted. “Don’t touch me,” he warned. “I’ll get arrested?” Jones egged on, to which Rubio replied no, “I’ll take care of it myself.” Jones didn’t miss a beat: “Oh, he’ll beat me up,” he concluded, voice rising in contemptuous curiosity, before pointing at Rubio and digging in again, “You’re not going to silence me.”
The hallway performance perfectly punctuated the hearing’s meek exploration of the calamity that is contemporary life on social media. The technology executives were answering, if weakly, for helping support websites like Infowars and crusaders like Jones. And if not Jones himself, then others who hide their deception more adeptly. The spat was a microcosm of the internet itself: A place where widespread adoption of platforms that give anyone unfettered access to almost everyone else, a place that gives people the sense that they deserve an audience, with anyone, on any topic, all the time.