The Media Today

Alex Jones forces tech giants to act like media companies

August 7, 2018

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 After Apple removed five of Infowars six podcasts from its library, Facebook unpublished several of Jones’s pages, and Google subsidiary YouTube suspended the Alex Jones channel, which had more than 2.4 million subscribers.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.
Sign up for CJR's daily email


Other notable stories

  • After the Florida Sun Sentinel reported on the full contents of a redacted report about the Parkland shooter’s years within the school system, the Broward County School Board has asked a judge to hold the paper and two of its reporters in contempt. The Sun Sentinel’s Tonya Alanez writes that “the redactions removed specifics of the killer’s history in the school system—and in the process removed details of mistakes the district made in handling him.”
  • Vox’s Ezra Klein considers how Neil Postman’s 1985 classic Amusing Ourselves to Death applies to the age of Trump. “The world we live in is both the sort of dystopia Postman feared and worse than anything he dared predict,” Klein writes. “The president of the United States emerged out of reality television, cable news, and caps-lock tweeting, and his great gift is his ability to own our attention in the precise ways those mediums own our attention—by stoking conflict, deepening grievance, starting fights, and turning everything, absolutely everything, into can’t-look-away entertainment.”
  • CNN’s Don Lemon responded to President Trump’s slander of him and Lebron James. “Referring to African-Americans as dumb is one of the oldest canards of America’s racist past and present,” Lemon said, tying Trump’s Friday tweet to a history of racist comments by the president.
  • For CJR, Dan Mitchell takes business reporters to task for confusing reporting around Apple’s $1 trillion market valuation.
  • Though the recent focus has been on institutional problems at CBS in the wake of The New Yorker’s exposé about sexual harassment at the network, David Usborne reminds readers that the issue isn’t limited to Les Moonves’s empire. Writing for Esquire, Usborne offers a look at NBC, where Matt Lauer’s firing raised “unsettling questions about the network’s leadership, its boys’-club culture, and how it covered the #MeToo moment.
  • Report For America, the nonprofit project that places emerging journalists into newsrooms around the country, has opened applications for news organizations interested in hosting journalists in 2019-2020.

RELATED: Facebook’s increasing threat to journalism

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