Alex Jones forces tech giants to act like media companies

For weeks, Facebook, YouTube, Apple, and other tech giants had faced questions over why they allowed Alex Jones, the supplement-peddling grifter who traffics in racist rants and conspiracy theories, and his Infowars brand to remain on their platforms. The response, when it came on Monday, was a domino effect. After Apple removed five of Infowars six podcasts from its library, Facebook unpublished several of Jones’s pages, and Google subsidiary YouTube suspended the Alex Jones channel, which had more than 2.4 million subscribers.

In taking action, the companies all cited Jones’s and Inforwars’s violation of their policies on “hate speech.” Notably absent from their statements was an acknowledgement that the regular spreading of false information was a major issue. But it’s hard to imagine Infowars’s penchant for fake news didn’t play a role. The tech giants, especially Facebook, had faced growing criticism in recent weeks for allowing Jones to peddle misinformation on their platforms. Mark Zuckerberg recently twisted himself into knots during an interview with Recode, attempting to justify Jones’s continued presence on Facebook by making a tortured analogy to Holocaust deniers.

ICYMI: “I spent 45 minutes on the phone with Megyn Kelly asking her to not run that show”

Despite drastically changing the way the world gets its news, the tech companies have long hewed to the claim that they aren’t media entities. They have positioned themselves as open, unbiased platforms that allow anyone to connect, argue, and say their piece. But, as Wired’s Issie Lapowsky writes, “the battle over InfoWars illustrates how what was once these tech giants’ greatest strength has become their greatest weakness.” Taking on Facebook and YouTube specifically, Lapowsky continues, “these two giants became so unprecedentedly huge, so instrumental to people’s understanding of the news, so politicized, so siloed, it soon became clear that the logical conclusion of all that openness might not be so great after all.”

Ultimately, the issues raised by Monday’s actions are far more important for what they say about the tech giants’ understanding of their function than what happens to Jones and Infowars going forward. Jones still has a presence on Twitter, an app in the iPhone story, and a website, meaning that he hasn’t been silenced, but his reach has been severely curtailed. The problems of fake news and hate speech that plague the big tech companies aren’t going away, and banning Jones is just the tip of the iceberg. But by (finally) taking action on Monday, they acknowledged that they need to take editorial ownership of their content.

Below, more on the reaction to the decisions by Apple, Facebook, and Google.

  • Spotify was there first: The streaming service removed several episodes of Jones’s shows last week for violating its policies.
  • On “free speech”: Vox’s Aja Romano tackles the free speech argument made by some of Jones’s supporters. “The swiftness of these removals highlights a truth that many tech companies don’t want to fully acknowledge in an age of increased ideological polarization among their users: The idea of ‘protecting free speech’ isn’t actually a hard-and-fast policy on their sites, but rather an increasingly handy excuse they can use to avoid taking controversial action,” she writes.
  • What’s next?: As CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted Monday, the decision to ban Jones and Infowars draws the tech companies into a politicized battle over truth, free speech, and what constitutes acceptable discourse. Private companies host much of the conversation on the internet, and scrutiny of their decisions going forward will only increase following Monday’s moves.
  • Fake news isn’t going away: The New York Times’s Jack Nicas writes that limiting Jones’s reach won’t do much to solve the problem of fake news. “Hundreds of smaller publishers promote similar conspiracy theories, and millions of followers help spread those theories by reposting them,” he writes, citing the recent popularity of the QAnon theory as an example.
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Other notable stories

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.