It’s hard to find any sympathy for someone as noxious as Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist/circus act whose attacks on the grieving families of children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School – he’s suggested the massacre was staged – have forced some of them to move repeatedly to avoid harassment by his followers.
Jones is the founder of InfoWars, a so-called news site that traffics in more paranoia than the Mission: Impossible franchise. He has made a career out of his own martyrdom, arguing that the establishment wants to keep him down because it fears him telling the people – sorry, of course I mean the sheeple – the truth.
On Monday, the New Establishment – which is to say, Big Tech – gave him one of his biggest gifts in years, when Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify enacted a large-scale “deplatforming.” Five of Jones’s six podcast series were removed from Apple’s podcast platform; Facebook deleted four pages associated with him and InfoWars; YouTube deleted The Alex Jones Channel, which had about 2.4-million subscribers; and Spotify yanked all episodes of The Alex Jones Show podcast, although it left up other InfoWars content.
Apple, YouTube and Spotify cited hate speech in the move; Facebook, being Facebook, was more circumspect, although it had already suspended Jones’s personal page for what it deemed bullying and hate speech.
Predictably, Jones brandished the martyr card, taking to the live-streaming platform Periscope to push his case. (Twitter, which owns Periscope, has so far permitted Jones to operate unfettered.) And sure enough, downloads of his apps in Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store, where they remain available, have soared over the past 48 hours. “Everyone must turn to InfoWars as a standard to be saved,” Jones declared. “Tell folks, ‘Hey, it’s the most censored thing in the world for a reason. Jones is dialed in, Jones knows what’s going on.' ”
Okay, Jones has no idea what he’s talking about.
Still, even though the move drew widespread cheering, some of us may feel a little queasy about the way it came about.
For the record, there is no evidence to back claims from his supporters that the companies co-ordinated their efforts. According to CNN’s Dylan Byers, the ban originated after Apple’s chief executive officer, Tim Cook, and the company’s senior vice-president of internet software and services, Eddy Cue, met over the weekend and decided to pull the podcasts. A few hours later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg caught wind of the move and decided to follow suit, as did Google’s YouTube and Spotify.
Jones should be pleased: At least he knows who made the decision to ban him, and why.
But posts from tens of thousands of individuals have been stripped from social media platforms without any explanation except vague statements about terms-of-service contraventions.
That may be because the machine that censors most content on the internet is frequently random, whimsical and disturbingly subjective. After all, it’s not really a machine: It’s just people sitting behind keyboards, making decisions on the fly.
The Cleaners, a documentary that played at the Sundance and Hot Docs film festivals this year, offers a valuable glimpse behind the curtain of Facebook’s censorship factory. In one such location, hundreds of Filipinos spend their days holed up in a bland Manila office complex, navigating through humanity’s digital muck. They review up to 25,000 pieces of content in a single shift, given mere seconds to decide whether to “delete” or “ignore” something that, if left up, could have disastrous consequences.
Often, they vapourize material that no one could ever hope to justify: child pornography, beheading videos, incitements to violence.
But with scant training – and, more to the point, little knowledge of the political or social context of other countries – they’re also called upon to restrict or permit speech that they should not be in a position to adjudicate. In the film, moderators delete everything from the Pulitzer Prize-winning “napalm girl” photo from the Vietnam War to a painting of a naked, small-penised Donald Trump. They also delete videos of bombings in Syria, because they see only the violence rather than the news value.
As Emily Bell, the director of Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, tweeted after Jones’s ban came down: “editorial decisions do not scale, they are culturally specific and liable to change over time. Put that in your algorithm.”
The companies acting against Jones are all privately run and therefore have the right to delete content at will. But they need to be far more transparent about the decisions they make on content posted both by regular individuals and ogres such as Jones, if only to avoid feeding the beast.