Infowars’ social media smackdown long overdue
By CHRISTINE EMBA | The Washington Post | Published: August 9, 2018
No more wild-eyed claims that 9/11 was a hoax, that the government was behind the Sandy Hook shooting or that the Parkland kids are “crisis actors.” No more spittle-flecked speculation about “white genocide” or how chemtrails are used for population control. Now, if you want to learn more about how the “New World Order” is bent on corralling us all into prison camps, you’re going to have to type Infowars.com into the address bar yourself.
That’s right: This week, Apple, Facebook and YouTube removed the majority of noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ content from their platforms, to the dismay of crackpots across the Web.
Previously, the social media sites had made some tentative attempts to control the spread of Jones’ viral untruths through their networks, levying 30-day bans on Jones himself and removing occasional episodes of his Infowars podcasts and shows. But now more wholesale bans have been put into effect. On Sunday night, Apple removed five of six Infowars podcasts from iTunes and its podcast app. On Monday, YouTube terminated the Alex Jones Channel, Facebook unpublished four Infowars pages and the streaming music site Spotify announced that “The Alex Jones Show” was banned from the platform.
The timing raised some eyebrows — had each of these networks been sitting there waiting for the others to go first? If so, they needn’t have dithered. Facebook, Apple and YouTube were well within their rights to boot Jones. Despite the outsize hue and cry rising from his co-conspirators, they’ve done nothing wrong.
Naturally, Jones thinks differently. In a series of aggrieved text messages sent to The Washington Post, he accused the companies of preparing to “move against the First Amendment in this country as we know it.” On Twitter — yes, he’s still present there — he had even more to say: “Now, who will stand against Tyranny and who will stand for free speech? We’re all Alex Jones now.”
Speak for yourself, sir.
The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” That’s it. It does not say that private companies are required to host your speech on their platforms, or that they must promote your content. You can say what you like, but no one else is obliged to help you get your message out. That this simple concept remains so misunderstood reflects either a terrific ignorance or a willful misreading — most likely, it’s a mix. But for those genuinely worried about the fate of our public discourse, take heart: Alex Jones is an exceptional case, and exceptions don’t make the rule — especially in a country that agonizes over freedom of expression as much as we do.
It took months for these platforms to decide to stop hosting him, and their decision this week was clearly not what they would have preferred. As recently as last month, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg expressed reluctance to remove even Holocaust denial from the platform, for goodness’ sake. There’s no reason to think the removal of Infowars from Apple and YouTube will have any chilling effect on anyone who conducts themselves according to these sites’ publicly available terms of service — or even, in many cases, somewhat outside of them.
Fine. If you’re an up-and-coming conspiracy theorist who traffics in absurd falsehoods and plans to build an empire through a combination of fear-mongering and dietary supplement sales, the events of this week may give you pause. But that, to my mind, is a good thing. If “we’re all Alex Jones” speaks to your heart, there may be some personal problems you need to address.
Or public ones, for that matter. When it comes down to it, false statements and purposeful conspiracy-mongering cause public harm. Often, a lot of harm. In December 2016, a man shot up the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington following a rumor, amplified by Jones, that it was hosting a pedophile ring. Parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School can’t visit their children’s graves because they are hounded by Infowars-inspired harassers. In June, an armed man in an armored vehicle barricaded himself near the Hoover Dam in support of QAnon, only the latest of the cock-eyed theories that Jones has promoted. None of this will end well, and tech platforms rightly don’t want any part of it. And unlike everything else related to Infowars, that actually makes sense.
Still, there’s likely to be further fallout from Facebook, Apple and YouTube’s decisions. It’s possible the deplatforming of Jones will further excite those who claim that speech is being silenced, or who are looking for more evidence of “deep state” intervention. Of course, that would have happened anyway — conspiracists gonna conspire, after all.
Let them. This move is an important step toward setting reasonable, and badly needed, precedent around free speech. Companies don’t have to defend the indefensible. Alex Jones can do that all on his own.
Christine Emba is an opinion columnist and editor for The Washington Post.