At this very moment, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is almost certainly sitting in front of a camera, shouting that he has been silenced. If you are so inclined, you can easily watch and listen along, either by going to his website, downloading his iPhone and Android apps, or following him on Twitter.
What you can no longer do, as of Monday, is consume Jones’ toxic brew of lies, hate, and product placement (his own term for this is “InfoWars”) via Facebook, YouTube, or Spotify. After Apple decided to stop distributing Jones’ podcasts on Sunday, the other powerful online distribution platforms swiftly followed suit.
Jones has desperately attempted to frame his de-platforming as a first amendment violation, but those who invoke the specter of a slippery slope toward authoritarian censorship distract from true significance of this moment: that we are at an inflection point in the way internet platforms conceive of and protect public discourse for society at large.
The banishment of InfoWars followed an excruciatingly long period of prevarication by Facebook and YouTube – companies that have spent the last two years promising to crack down on bad actors who purposefully sow misinformation and incite violence while simultaneously hosting (and amplifying the reach of) America’s most notorious purveyor of the same.
The crisis was not precipitated by anything in particular that Jones said or did – such as his longstanding and baseless allegation that the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked. Instead, it was a pointed question from a CNN reporter at a Facebook event touting its work on misinformation that focused public attention on Jones. Once Facebook was forced to argue its position, it was only a matter of time before the contradiction became too great to bear.
Facebook, Jones, his supporters, and some civil libertarians attempted to invoke the distinctly American conception of free speech in defending Jones’ right to use private technology platforms, but such arguments fall apart under scrutiny.
American social media companies have always censored speech, principally in order to attract advertisers, and secondarily in order to prevent harm against users. This is why these companies banned female nipples long before they banned white supremacists.
By moving beyond the knee-jerk framing of Jones’ removal as a free speech issue, we can view his de-platforming as an attempt to clean up the waters he has muddied with misinformation and hatred.
“It seems like the beginning of a recognition that platforms can ban hateful tactics, not just explicitly hateful speech; that they can protect public discourse by banning those who strategically work to sour [it],” said Tarleton Gillespie, author of Custodians of the Internet.
For too long, social media companies have policed their platforms as if users are either genuine and acting in good faith or bad actors who violate the rules.
These rules don’t apply to Jones, whose playbook is to foster distrust and confusion, shout people down and make meaningful public discourse impossible. He dressed inflammatory, false and cruel statements “sometimes as legitimate speech, mere theater at others, and his readers like and forward it like it’s the latest viral cat video”, Gillespie said.
“He produces the commodity that mimics what platforms want, and pretends to be the contribution they swear to protect,” he added.
“The ‘free speech’ outrage conveniently protects people like Alex, white rightwing conspiracy theorists that pose an actual, credible harm to many vulnerable communities like immigrants, Muslims, and transgender folks,” said Reem Suleiman, senior campaigner at SumOfUs.
One of Jones’s conspiracy theories to have stoked real world-violence is the notion that the left is planning a civil war against “patriots” like him.
“It’s really dangerous and contributing to a lot of these running street battles,” said Data & Society’s Joan Donovan, citing violence in Portland and Berkeley last weekend ahead of the anniversary of Charlottesville.
Facebook has already pledged to clamp down on misinformation that incites violence in places like Sri Lanka and India, but has so far been reluctant to do so on its own doorstep.
Jones’s damage extends beyond the victims of his lies, such as the parents of Sandy Hook victims, to the people who believe what he says and “all of us” in society, argued Susan Benesch of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.
“He has with various kinds of content caused various different kinds of harm,” Benesch said. “Egregiously false conspiracy theories are bad for the functioning of democracy. How many other people have gotten their ability to understand the world and distinguish fact from fiction degraded by Alex Jones?”
Despite Google and Facebook publicly stating they were removing Jones over hate speech, Jones was also becoming a liability in the eyes of advertisers, who did not want to be associated with his toxic brand of entertainment.
He might have garnered a large and engaged following, but that’s of no value to the platforms unless it can be monetized. This explains why Jones pivoted to peddling his own supplements, body armour and “prepper” gear for his imaginary civil war.
“We’re not talking about morality, we’re talking about capitalism,” said Whitney Phillips, an academic who researches online extremism and manipulation.
The one platform that has thus far resisted the urge to do as Tim Cook says (even Pinterest fell in line) has been Twitter. The cacophonous micro-blogging platform has struggled to shrug off the straitjacket of its early years as the “free speech wing of the free speech party”. With chief executive Jack Dorsey reorienting the company’s ethos toward conversational “health”, the decision not to ban Jones and InfoWars surprised and angered many.
“If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction,” Dorsey tweeted. “That’s not us.”
Dorsey has continued to engage with his (many) critics on Twitter, and the company has pledged to expedite its process for establishing and revising policies that could result in Jones being banned in the future – including a policy focused on “dehumanizing speech”.
Whatever decision Twitter ultimately arrives at, both Benesch and Gillespie said it was healthy to have some diversity among the content rules for internet platforms – and to have public debates with their leaders about the rules.
“For years, platforms have been making these moderation decisions on our behalf,” said Gillespie. “Whether they make good decisions or bad ones, the fact that they do it for us may be the core problem, because they’re decisions that belong to the public: where’s the line? what are we willing to tolerate in the name of free speech and what is truly harmful?”
“Public outrage is the closest we have right now to collectively considering these hard cases.”