In the last few days, Facebook, Apple, YouTube, and Spotify booted from their platforms podcasts, pages, and channels that belong to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his InfoWars website — one of the biggest purges of popular content by Internet giants in recent memory.
Jones and his various sites are leading purveyors of violent and sometimes racist (and anti-Semitic) conspiracy theories. The tech companies say they blocked InfoWars not because of the conspiracy theories, but because, in Spotify’s words, InfoWars “expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics.”
Facebook said they were shutting down several of Jones’s pages for “glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies.” Apple said in a statement to Buzzfeed News, “Apple does not tolerate hate speech, and we have clear guidelines that creators and developers must follow to ensure we provide a safe environment for all of our users,” adding, “Podcasts that violate these guidelines are removed from our directory.”
Jones set off a round of debate in recent weeks about whether InfoWars should be granted carte blanche on big social media outlets when he addressed Russia investigation special counsel Robert Mueller on his show, imitated firing a gun, and said, “You’re going to get it, or I’m going to die trying.” (Facebook’s statement almost certainly is in response.)
The InfoWars website gets as many as 10 million visitors a month, and Alex Jones’s YouTube channel has roughly 2.4 million subscribers, with 17 million views in the last 30 days.
Supporters of the ban on Jones — including the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting (Alex Jones has stated the tragedy never took place) — argue that the conspiracy theorists’ message constitutes a “societal crisis.” But his supporters, particularly those on the right, like Sen. Ted Cruz, believe that limiting Jones’ online reach is an affront to free speech.
Alex Jones’s media empire, explained
Alex Jones has been a consistent, leading voice in the conspiracy theorist corner of the Internet for more than 20 years, pitching such ideas as “the government controls the weather” and “Hillary Clinton is a literal demon.” As my colleague Zack Beauchamp wrote on Jones’s views in October 2016:
The US government is secretly controlled by a shadowy international cabal called the New World Order. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is going to put Americans in concentration camps. The “Jewish mafia” controls Uber and American health care. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are literal demons — like, the kind that come from hell and smell like sulfur. … Jones and those like him believe the world has been secretly taken over by a secret global cabal, the so-called “New World Order.” These “globalists,” as Jones types derisively call them, want to take over the United States, which they see as the final stronghold of freedom on Earth.
He was also one of the biggest pushers of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which eventually led a gunman to enter a D.C. pizzeria and fire several shots.
“That’s a demon I will take down, or I’ll die trying. So that’s it. It’s going to happen, we’re going to walk out in the square, politically, at high noon, and he’s going to find out whether he makes a move man, make the move first, and then it’s going to happen,” Jones said, miming a pistol with his hand. “It’s not a joke. It’s not a game. It’s the real world. Politically. You’re going to get it, or I’m going to die trying, bitch. Get ready. We’re going to bang heads. We’re going to bang heads.”
Jones is a Donald Trump supporter and promoter. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump appeared on Alex Jones’s show, saying Jones “reputation was amazing,” and Jones has repeatedly bragged that he is in close contact with the president.
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) August 6, 2018
In a statement on the decision to remove Jones’ content from the site, Facebook said that the company was not doing so because Jones was a conspiracy theorist, but because of Jones “glorifying violence” and “using dehumanizing language” against minorities:
As a result of reports we received, last week, we removed four videos on four Facebook Pages for violating our hate speech and bullying policies. These pages were the Alex Jones Channel Page, the Alex Jones Page, the InfoWars Page and the Infowars Nightly News Page. In addition, one of the admins of these Pages – Alex Jones – was placed in a 30-day block for his role in posting violating content to these Pages.
Since then, more content from the same Pages has been reported to us — upon review, we have taken it down for glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies… While much of the discussion around Infowars has been related to false news, which is a serious issue that we are working to address by demoting links marked wrong by fact checkers and suggesting additional content, none of the violations that spurred today’s removals were related to this.
More recently, Jones has been embroiled in a series of lawsuits filed by people he has made repeated false assertions about, like Marcel Fontaine, whom InfoWars declared to be the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl. (despite the fact that Fontaine had never even visited the state of Florida), or like Leonard Pozner, the father of a victim of the Sandy Hook shooting, Noah Pozner, whose family has endured endless harassment from followers of Jones who believe that Pozner’s son never existed. To be clear, this isn’t the first time Jones has been sued for making outrageously false statements. But now, supporters of Jones’ victims have started going after not just Jones, but the platforms that host him and broadcast his messages — like Facebook.
A free speech issue — sort of
Fans and supporters of Alex Jones (not to mention InfoWars employees, like InfoWars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson) have responded to the decisions by Facebook, Apple, Spotify and YouTube by alleging that by striking against Jones’ media outlets, “Big Tech” is engaged in “collusion” and “election meddling” and are putting free speech at risk.
Big Tech is engaging in election meddling and COLLUSION.
Apple, Facebook, Spotify, YouTube (Google) all banned Infowars within 12 hours of each other.
This is unprecedented.
— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) August 6, 2018
Wikileaks also chimed in, describing the ban as evidence of a “global anti-trust problem.”
Infowars says it has been banned by Facebook for unspecified ‘hate speech’. Regardless of the facts in this case, the ability of Facebook to censor rivial publishers is a global anti-trust problem, which along with San Francisco cultural imperialism, reduces political diversity. https://t.co/xb5oY2JHzy
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 6, 2018
And they have been joined by Sen. Ted Cruz, who has repeatedly defended Jones’ right to speak freely on social media platforms while arguing that perhaps anti-trust laws should be used to “break up” companies like Facebook because, in his view, those who would shut down Alex Jones’ outlets might do the same to people or entities with more mainstream perspectives.
Am no fan of Jones — among other things he has a habit of repeatedly slandering my Dad by falsely and absurdly accusing him of killing JFK — but who the hell made Facebook the arbiter of political speech? Free speech includes views you disagree with. #1A https://t.co/RC5v4SHaiI
To be clear, Facebook, Spotify, YouTube, and Apple are all private companies, and legally have the right to ban any entity from their platforms, including Jones. As Marissa Lang wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in August 2016:
As private companies, social networks are not required to adhere to the First Amendment. They set their own rules and retain the right to moderate content, routinely screening it for instances of gratuitous violence, harassment, profanity and other offensive material.
Because Facebook and other social media companies are not just massive corporations, and are vehicles for millions of people to share their personal views and perspectives, many observers believe that a shutdown on a specific entity because of their speech, especially one based on alleged “hate speech,” doesn’t bode well for them, or others, especially when the rules determining what hate speech actually is are vague at best. (For example, in 2017, several Facebook users reported having posts taken down that referenced the well-known LGBT-themed comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.)
Alex Jones’ online popularity notwithstanding, it is unlikely that his fanbase has the political firepower necessary to get his YouTube channel restored and his podcasts back on Spotify. But just as unlikely is the idea that the debate over who gets to say what on social media platforms, and how, will be over anytime soon.