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Apple crushed Alex Jones — then tossed him a lifeline

August 7 · Issue #181 · View online
The Interface
Alex Jones’ fate was decided over the weekend, when Apple CEO Tim Cook and his vice president of software and services, Eddy Cue, met to talk about it. So says Dylan Byers in his daily newsletter, Pacific, which lays out the first reported account of how most of the major tech platforms came to ban the Infowars host on a single day. Byers continues:
Hours after Apple announced its move, Mark Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook made the decision to pull four of Jones’ pages from their platform. Zuckerberg only moved to remove these pages after learning about Apple’s decision, Facebook sources said. That is why the pages were removed at 3 a.m. Pacific Time.
I read Byers’ reporting with interest, because it answered a question I’ve had since waking up to the news of Jones’ banning on Monday. After months of defending his right to spread misinformation, why did Facebook and YouTube decide to ban Jones on the same day?
Brian Feldman, speaking for many of the reporters I follow on Twitter, speculated that the platforms had been scared to act until Apple provided them with air cover:
The reason that every other platform booted Jones is because Apple did it first. The swiftness with which Facebook and YouTube cast out Alex Jones does not indicate responsible moderation, and certainly is not a display of thoughtful moral leadership. These companies didn’t spend months deliberating a course of action and then decided this weekend. They saw Apple make its move, and they dusted off what must have been pre-written statements that had been sitting in someone’s drafts for months. Just a few weeks ago, the official Facebook Twitter account was insisting on “free speech” as the reason the company wouldn’t ban Infowars. What happened to that principled stand?
I understand the appeal of this take. In this view, Facebook is a naive weakling afraid to take any enforcement action on its platform; Apple, on the other hand, is the practical one who never pretended to embrace free speech in the first place.
And yet I wonder whether this view isn’t giving Apple too much credit. Because at the same time that Apple banned Jones’ podcast — possibly giving other tech giants the courage to do the same — Apple left Jones a powerful lifeline, in the form of his iOS app.
Byers reports Cook and Cue “decided to let Jones’ InfoWars app remain available in the app store because they felt it did not run afoul of their policy.” (Google, whose subsidiary YouTube banned Jones on Monday, let the Android version of the Infowars remain in the Google Play Store as well.)
Predictably, Infowars fans have flocked to the app. My colleague Shoshana Woodinsky reports:
Infowars Official, the app named after Alex Jones’ controversial radio talk show, has become the fourth most popular news app in the United States that’s currently available in the iOS App Store, according to public rankings. It was the 47th most popular just two days ago.
The free app, which launched in June, streams live shows and written pieces from Jones and other conservative pundits. It also links to the Infowars store where visitors can buy T-shirts and skincare products. An Android version of the app is available in the Google Play Store; there, it jumped from being the 31st most popular news app to the 11th.
The explanation for Apple’s seemingly contradictory positions here could be obvious. The App Store and its podcast platform have different rules; the podcast platform explicitly bans hate speech, and the App Store (surprisingly) does not. I suspect that will change, possibly quite soon — and when it does, Jones may find himself without a home on iOS.
Still, it seems odd to credit Apple for being the sole company with the conviction to ban Jones when, in fact, it did not. The Infowars app contains live shows with the same hateful conspiracies that could be found on the podcast; Apple simply transferred those users from one platform to another.
And while the narrative that puts Apple in control leans on chronology — platforms only moved to ban Jones after Apple did — I read the chain of events another way. Apple was not the first to take disciplinary action against Jones. YouTube issued its first strike against him earlier this year, then did so again this summer. Facebook followed with a strike of its own. Stitcher was the first to ban Jones’ podcasts from its platform; Spotify followed.
Perhaps Cook and Cue did push these platforms to taking stronger action than they might have otherwise. But I look at these events and see platforms all moving, however tentatively, toward the same conclusion. Each time one acted, it reinforced a related decision by another. Even if Apple might have caused the dam to break, but lots of people — including employees inside tech companies and activists and journalists providing outside pressure — have been chipping away at it for some time.
(I asked Facebook to talk about the chronology of its decision-making, but didn’t hear back.)

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And finally ...
First Amendment Experts Warn Facebook Banning InfoWars Could Set Completely Reasonable Precedent For Free Speech
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