Sci-Tech

Gatekeepers or censors? Tech sites muddle through managing offensive online speech

Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter took differing approaches this past week to material from right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars site. Their decisions underscore how unevenly tech companies enforce their rules on hate speech and offensive content.

Apple, Google and Facebook this past week erased from their services many — but not all — videos, podcasts and posts from right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars site. Twitter left Jones’ posts untouched.

The differing approaches to Jones exposed how unevenly tech companies enforce their rules on hate speech and offensive content.

In only a few cases do the companies appear to consistently apply their policies, such as their ban on child pornography and when the law required them to remove content, like Nazi imagery in Germany.

When left to make their own decisions, the tech companies often struggle with their roles as the arbiters of speech, and they leave false information, upset users and confusing decisions in their wake.

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Here is a look at what the companies allow and ban.

Facebook at center of storm

Of all the tech companies, Facebook has faced the biggest public outcry over what it allows on its platform.

Whenever the social-media company has been pressed to explain its decision-making, it has referred to its community standards, a public document that outlines Facebook’s rules for users.

The company has outright bans against violent content, nudity and terrorist-recruitment propaganda. The rules on other types of content, including hate speech and false news, are more ambiguous.

When asked about Infowars last month, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said he wouldn’t remove pages hosting popular conspiracy theories of the type Jones is known for sharing. Zuckerberg then turned the conversation to the subject of the Holocaust, defending Facebook users who deny the Holocaust occurred.

His awkward explanation prompted outrage, and less than a day later, Zuckerberg offered a public apology.

Now, less than a month later, Facebook has banned Jones and removed four pages belonging to him — including one with nearly 1.7 million followers — for violating its policies.

The ban means that while Jones still has an account and can view content on Facebook, he is suspended from posting anything to the platform, including to his personal page or any pages on which he is an administrator.

In a post, Facebook said it banned Jones and his pages for “accumulating too many strikes.”

 

— Sheera Frenkel

 

Google’s gray area

Of all the major online services, Google’s YouTube is probably the most explicit about what is and is not allowed. But even with its published “Community Guidelines,” YouTube has wrestled with the subjective interpretation of those rules.

Users can flag videos they believe violate those guidelines, which include bans on videos that contain nudity or sexual content or incite violence. YouTube will then review those videos for potential violations. In addition, YouTube’s computer systems comb the site for videos that violate its rules.

But many videos operate in a gray area. Even in YouTube’s own explanation of “hateful content,” the company calls it a “delicate balancing act” between free expression and protecting YouTube users.

Jones incurred two content violations from YouTube over the past year. In February, YouTube said he had violated its policies regarding harassment and bullying when a video claiming that David Hogg, one of the outspoken student survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, was a “crisis actor.”

In Jones’ most recent violation, last month, YouTube took down four of his videos that included hate speech against Muslim and transgender people as well as footage of a child being shoved to the ground. YouTube said the videos had violated its policies on hate speech, harassment and child endangerment.

 

— Daisuke Wakabayashi

 

Twitter, ‘free speech wing of free speech party’

Twitter has been more permissive of controversial content than its social-media peers, with executives calling it “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” While Facebook removes nude or gory images, Twitter is more tolerant of adult and violent content. Rather than deleting these kinds of images, Twitter tends to hide them behind warnings that require users to click through before they can see the content.

Twitter’s approach has provoked plenty of criticism, particularly around its lax handling of harassment. Celebrities like actress Leslie Jones have been temporarily driven off the platform by swarms of abusers.

Jack Dorsey, the company’s chief executive, has said the company needed to do better at policing trolls. In December, Twitter said it would promote “healthy conversation” by using a combination of human moderation and machine learning to detect trolls and minimize their posts.

Although the parents of several Sandy Hook shooting victims are suing Jones for defamation, a Twitter spokesman said that neither Jones’ personal account nor his Infowars account are violating Twitter’s policies.

In a series of tweets late Tuesday, Dorsey suggested that other tech companies had caved to political pressure in removing Jones from their platforms and argued that journalists — not Twitter — were better suited to fact-checking Jones’ claims.

“He hasn’t violated our rules,” Dorsey wrote. “We’re going to hold Jones to the same standard we hold to every account, not taking one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories.”

 

— Kate Conger

 

Apple’s ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ approach

Without a social-media platform, Apple typically avoids the content controversies that ensnare its peers. Yet the iPhone maker still makes many decisions about what apps, podcasts, songs and videos it will make available on its popular services.

Apple last Sunday banned five of the six Infowars podcasts from its podcasts service. Apple determined the sixth podcast, RealNews with David Knight, did not violate its policies, which ban podcasts that “could be construed as racist, misogynist, or homophobic” or that depict “graphic sex, violence, gore, illegal drugs or hate themes.” In the past, Apple has also removed neo-Nazi songs from iTunes.

Apple’s decision to ban the Infowars podcasts was surprising partly because an app that Infowars introduced last month was gaining steam on Apple’s App Store.

By Wednesday, after news of Jones’ bans spread, Infowars was the No. 1 overall “trending” app on the Google Play store, a metric that reflects its sudden momentum. Among news apps, Infowars was No. 3 on Apple and No. 5 on Google, above all mainstream news organizations.

The Infowars app, which includes news articles and the shows of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, had likely been downloaded a few hundred to a few thousand times a day on average after its introduction last month, said Randy Nelson, head of mobile insights at Sensor Tower, which tracks app data. Now, it is likely getting 30,000 to 40,000 downloads a day, Nelson estimated.

The surge suggests the tech industry’s recent action against Infowars has drawn new interest to the conspiracy theories it peddles.

Apple reviews all apps that apply for its App Store and determined the Infowars app did not violate its rules. Apple posts policies for apps it distributes, including prohibitions on “content that is offensive, insensitive, upsetting, intended to disgust, or in exceptionally poor taste.” The policies give a series of examples, including content that is defamatory, discriminatory, mean-spirited, overtly sexual, encourages violence or includes “realistic portrayals of people or animals being killed, maimed, tortured, or abused.”

How Apple decides which apps violate those policies is more vague. Apple says: “We will reject apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court justice once said, ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’ And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.”

 

— Jack Nicas


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