The New Gatekeepers

First it was Milo and Alex Jones, now platforms are being de-platformed

October 30, 2018

Having Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube ban hate-mongers like Milo Yiannopolous and Infowars founder Alex Jones—or having cloud-hosting provider Cloudflare block access to a neo-Nazi site like The Daily Stormer, as the service did last year—is only partially effective at stemming the flow of toxic ideas, since there are other social tools that are happy to give them a voice. But the latest moves against Gab, which pitched itself as a more free-thinking (i.e., more right-wing) alternative to Twitter, show that what some call “de-platforming” is moving to a new level: The de-platforming of alternative platforms themselves.

In Gab’s case, the service has been rejected by hosts such as Joyent and Microsoft’s Azure, which ended its contract with Gab earlier this year, and it has also been blocked by payment processors PayPal and Stripe. On the weekend, after a user of Gab allegedly opened fire and killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, domain registrar GoDaddy cut the service off and told it to find another registrar. So, even if Gab manages to find a new host for the network, it would be difficult for users to find it just by typing in a web address (the domain name infrastructure requires the use of an official registrar, in much the same way that listing your landline requires someone to organize and publish a phone book).

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Gab, not surprisingly, has been promoting—as Jones did—the argument that this is a free speech issue, and that it is being unfairly silenced by large corporate players (somewhat confusingly, it also seems to be arguing that the things it published, including outright threats of violence toward Jews and other identifiable groups, were just words and that words don’t have any real power). Each of the services that has cut Gab off, however, have pointed out that the company’s behavior was a simple breach of terms of service, which in most cases prohibit threats of violence towards specific individuals or groups. And for now at least, Gab remains active on both Twitter and Facebook, so its de-platforming is not quite complete.

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What makes the discussion around de-platforming so difficult is that while Gab’s argument and the complaints of Alex Jones are clearly an attempt at misdirection, since the First Amendment doesn’t apply to the actions taken by corporations like Facebook and Twitter, removing a service from the internet by refusing to give it hosting or domain services clearly enters into some touchy territory. Cloudflare’s founder Matthew Prince came out and addressed that elephant in the room when he cut off The Daily Stormer, saying he felt that doing so was clearly the right thing to do morally, but that he was still troubled by the implications.

“Let me be clear: This was an arbitrary decision. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the internet. No one should have that power,” Prince said in a memo at the time. “We need to have a discussion around this, with clear rules and clear frameworks. My whims and those of Jeff [Bezos] and Larry [Page] and Satya [Nadella] and Mark [Zuckerberg], that shouldn’t be what determines what should be online.” In particular, Prince said, the fact that he could remove someone from the internet so quickly would make it “a little bit harder for us to argue against a government somewhere pressuring us into taking down a site they don’t like.” According to The Washington Post, the connection between Gab and the Pittsburgh shootings has reignited a debate in Congress over whether platforms should be immune from penalties for the content they host.

The other thing that is potentially troubling is that people like Alex Jones and services like Gab use bans as a kind of badge of honor, a way of showing their followers they are having an impact, and that all of their warnings about an attack on free speech are well-founded. Gab’s message on its home page says “You have all just made Gab a nationally recognized brand as the home of free speech online,” and the service reportedly gained thousands of new users after Jones was banned from Twitter. Does banning these kinds of actors paradoxically give them even more publicity and currency? (The Daily Stormer eventually got back online with the help of a company that saw the move partly as a form of marketing).

On the other hand, there is also research that shows de-platforming works, in the sense that it robs people like Jones of a megaphone. Joan Donovan of the non-profit research group Data & Society told Motherboard earlier this year that the group’s initial studies indicate that there is an initial uptick in interest or discussion about a person or a group when they get de-platformed, but in general “they don’t gain the same amplification power they had prior to the moment they were taken off these bigger platforms.” And a study of Reddit done by Georgia Tech last year found that when the site banned some of the most toxic or offensive sub-Reddits, there was a decline in hate speech on the site as a whole.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.