The Interface

By Casey Newton

A brief history of Infowars promoting violence on Facebook



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July 13 · Issue #164 · View online
The Interface
As Facebook worked to quell unrest around its decision to offer Infowars a platform for its toxic conspiracy theories, it fell back on a familiar argument: both sides do it. “We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis — but others call fake news,” the company tweeted at CNN’s Oliver Darcy. “We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech.”
But does it? Megha Rajagopalan, BuzzFeed’s China bureau chief, offered some useful historical context. “Facebook actually has banned pages belonging to extremists who are egregious purveyors of hate speech & conspiracy theories in places like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, especially certain ethnonationalist groups and personalities,” she writes.
In Myanmar, it banned the hateful monk Wirayu, who inspired targeted harassment at the Rohingya Muslims as part of an ethnic cleaning campaign that caused 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh. “They are not allowed a presence on Facebook, and we will remove any accounts and content which support, praise or represent these individuals or organizations,” content policy manager David Caragliano said at the time.
In Sri Lanka, amid widespread ethnic violence, Facebook temporarily shut down all service in March. Pages from groups such as groups such as Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya pushed conspiracy theories that “accuse Muslims of high birth rates and forcing people to convert to Islam in order to reduce Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majority,” according to Al Jazeera. Facebook banned those pages in the aftermath of the violence.
So indeed Facebook bans pages for what might charitably be called “opinions.” Returning the subject to Infowars, Rajagopalan asks the obvious question
So a central question here is about transparency – who makes decisions about what pages are banned and what pages stay on the platform? 
What’s the rubric for determining this? What separates a publication like InfoWars from a Facebook page that is also publishing harmful conspiracy theories, but is not styling itself as a news outlet?
One clear dividing line appears to be whether the page inspires its followers to commit violence. In 2016, Infowars reader Edgar Maddison Welch stepped into Comet Ping Pong pizzeria and shot the lock off a door with an AR-15 rifle. He told police, according to Mother Jones, that “he was there to rescue children from a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta.” The existence of the pizzeria-based sex ring, a conspiracy known as Pizzagate, was promoted relentlessly by Infowars’ Alex Jones, whose Facebook page Welch liked and whose radio show he listened to.
Mother Jones found six other instances of Infowars commenters and Jones enthusiasts committing violent crimes, including Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev; Gabby Giffords shooter Jared Loughner, and a man who fired a semiautomatic weapon at the White House during the Obama presidency.
More recently, a man named Brennan Gilmore posted video of the attacks that killed one and wounded at least 19 more in Charlottesville at the Unite the Right rally. Infowars accused Gilmore of being an operative of the “deep state” and said he was trying to bring down President Trump.
“After the conspiracy theories about me spread online, my family and I were subject to harassment, threats, hate mail and hacking attempts,” Gilmore, who is suing Jones for defamation, later wrote in the Post. “Someone mailed an envelope containing a suspicious white powder residue and a four-page diatribe describing how I would burn in hell. I’ve been accosted on the street in Charlottesville and the harassment continues to this day.”
It’s for this reason that I take exception to the idea that Infowars exists on the familiar left-to-right spectrum of political commentary, and must be protected in the name of free speech. Most of us take no issue with the ban on falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater; Jones’ false yelling has proven to be just as deadly.
The academic Zeynep Tufecki spoke to this issue today in the context of Jones’ repeated promotion of the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre never took place. “‘Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax to take away your guns’ [is] not just something ‘debunked by fact-checkers.’ It’s high-profile incitement to violence and harassment against bereaved parents who just lost their little children to murder. As is ‘this pizza shop is a pedophile ring.’”
She goes on: “I’m wary of banning pages. Facebook cannot cure all societal ills. It’s good if they finally stop amplifying the worst via algorithms / business model. But there’s a line. Inciting violence/harassment against people, let alone recently bereaved parents, is on far side of that line.”
Indeed. For now, Facebook promises only to limit Infowars’ promotion in the News Feed. To that point, Alexios Mantzarlis has some relevant questions:
How has this worked out with InfoWars? How often have fact-checkers flagged an InfoWars post as false? How many people fewer were reached because of it? And can InfoWars still advertise and monetize on the platform?
The good news is that some of these answers may be contained in the data Facebook agreed Wednesday to share with academic researchers. And I shudder to think what fresh damage Infowars can and will do in the meantime.

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