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Alex Jones loses the info war

August 6 · Issue #180 · View online
The Interface
On Monday, the bottom dropped out for Alex Jones. After a series of tepid disciplinary actions, which the Infowars host evaded with ease, three of the biggest tech platforms acted in near-unison beginning late Sunday night. And the result is that one of the popular conspiracy performers on the internet has found his reach dramatically reduced.
The great de-platforming of Alex Jones began last week, when Spotify and Stitcher removed Infowars podcasts from their respective networks. (Spotify initially removed a handful of episodes before removing whole shows.) On Sunday night, Apple followed suit, removing his podcast from iTunes for violating its rules against hate speech.
Apple’s move was followed almost immediately by a rash of similar moves. Facebook removed Jones’ pages, citing repeated hate speech violations. YouTube followed suit, terminating an account that had 2.4 million subscribers. Pinterest came next.
By the day’s end, Infowars had three major digital platforms left at their disposal: the open web, Twitter, and its native apps for Android and iOS. Jones lambasted the platforms’ moves, telling The Washington Post: “You’re on the wrong side of history mainstream media,” Jones said in a text message to The Post. “You sold the country out, and now you’re going to pay for it.”
Platforms have long been criticized for not only hosting Jones, but finding him a large audience using social features and recommendation algorithms. But pressure on the tech companies intensified last month after CNN’s Oliver Darcy asked Facebook a relatively straightforward question during a meeting between reporters and News Feed executives: How can the company claim to be serious about fighting misinformation while offering Infowars a large and growing platform?
“Different publishers have very different points of view,” was the answer John Hegeman, who leads the News Feed, gave Darcy at the time. But that answer only spurred more coverage of Facebook’s contradictory policies. The next week, Mark Zuckerberg fumbled an answer about Infowars by defending the rights of Holocaust deniers, and Facebook found itself in the midst of yet another public-relations crisis.
In the end it was hate speech, not misinformation, that got Jones booted from Facebook. But a close review of Jones’ posts to social networks was never going to withstand close scrutiny. A disturbing number of his fans were found to have threatened and committed real-world violence. This April, in a little-noticed incident, he repeatedly used an anti-transgender slur on Facebook and appears not to have been disciplined for it at all.
Until Monday, tech companies’ policies seemed to offer more protections to Jones than they did for families of the victims of Sandy Hook, one of whom moved seven times in an effort to escape the harassment of Jones’ followers. (Jones has spent years promoting the lie that the government faked the Sandy Hook massacre as a pretext for taking their guns away.)
There will surely be much more to be said about Jones in the days ahead. For tech companies, the question is less what to do about Jones — the answer has been clear for some time now — than what to do about everyone copying his playbook. Misinformation and hate speech spread quickly on their platforms, amassing audience in the millions. The platforms would do well to ponder why that is, and what they could do about it.

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