When It’s Radicalization By Any Other Name …

Con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist Alex Jones has been the sub­ject of con­tent dele­tions and plat­form bans by a num­ber of com­pa­nies over the past two weeks, includ­ing Apple, Face­book, Spo­ti­fy, YouTube, YouPorn, and Pin­ter­est, with com­pa­ny spokes­peo­ple cit­ing Jones’ repeat vio­la­tions of net-abuse poli­cies and fail­ure to abide by plat­form pub­lish­ing require­ments as the com­mon themes and caus­es of termination.

Before mov­ing on to my own com­ments on the sit­u­a­tion, I’d like to share two respons­es which I felt were par­tic­u­lar­ly mea­sured and insightful:

On to the big­ger pic­ture, then.

First, can we agree it’s time we backed off and left Alex Jones to his well deserved fate? The man made his bed, now he’s wel­come to lie in it and go back to being the pari­ah he was before Don­ald Trump put him in the spotlight.

Sec­ond, can we please stop call­ing it cen­sor­ship? Jones does­n’t lack a plat­form of his own. He’s been self-pub­lish­ing through his per­son­al InfoWars web­site and sell­ing prod­ucts through his online store for many years. Fram­ing this as de-plat­form­ing is miss­ing the point. Not only does Jones have a media com­pa­ny he can use any time he wish­es with­out lim­its, but it was his own deci­sion to ignore the rules of third-par­ty plat­forms on which he’d gross­ly over­stayed his welcome.

While some aspects of the sit­u­a­tion could have been han­dled dif­fer­ent­ly (I’ll get to that lat­er), over­all there is no sym­pa­thy due. Jones has been pok­ing and throw­ing rocks at this par­tic­u­lar bear for years, know­ing in the back of his mind that one day it was going to wake up and slap the ever-lov­ing shit out of him. The only unex­pect­ed part was how long it took.

To those who cry ‘free speech,’ I note that free­dom of speech has nev­er been about free­dom from log­i­cal con­se­quences or free­dom from crit­i­cism. Both hap­pen in the real world, and in this case sev­er­al key busi­ness­es have come to the con­clu­sion that they’d rather not let Alex Jones use their net­works as a vehi­cle for dis­in­for­ma­tion, defama­tion, and alleged defama­tion.

While Amer­i­can defama­tion laws and safe har­bour pro­tec­tions insu­late from law­suits caused by user-sub­mit­ted con­tent, they don’t do any­thing to stave off the bad PR and bruis­ing to cor­po­rate image that come from asso­ci­at­ing with a per­son who’s made liv­ing off of trolling the pub­lic in some of the most base and ugly ways imaginable.

As wis­er jour­nal­ists have point­ed out, Jones’ flout­ing of Accept­able Use Poli­cies, harass­ment of inno­cents, oth­er­ing of minori­ties, and seem­ing inabil­i­ty to sus­tain polite rela­tion­ships with oth­er human beings online rise to the lev­el of cor­po­rate gov­er­nance, but not the First Amend­ment.

Sim­i­lar argu­ments could be made against numer­ous impres­sion­able Jones fans who’ve tak­en him too lit­er­al­ly over the years and engaged in harass­ment, vio­lence, and defama­tion, some of which ris­es to the lev­el of crim­i­nal behaviour.

Jones’ chaos has­n’t aged well, and when fol­lowed to its log­i­cal end, all of that fear and divi­sion ends up being bad for busi­ness. He may have seemed edgy and mys­te­ri­ous back when he broke into the main­stream, but since then as more peo­ple tuned in and became dis­gust­ed, he’s lost his lus­ter and they’ve lost their patience. The Alex Jones who inhab­its the pub­lic con­scious­ness today has become a car­i­ca­ture, a jester tak­ing vir­tu­al pies to the face on nation­al TV. His niche audi­ence show­ers him with love, but in spite of all their noise and fer­vor they remain a tiny per­cent­age of the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion and the rest of us are ready to move on.

From a PR stand­point, after the recent Sandy Hook deba­cle how many media plat­forms are will­ing to gam­ble on the dimin­ish­ing returns from seed­ing fur­ther chaos, extra rage, more insin­cere shock-jock­ery? Appar­ent­ly Twit­ter stands alone in think­ing it holds no alle­giance to social­ly accept­able behav­iour or the truth (good luck with that), but oth­ers have stepped for­ward with a firm ‘no thanks.’

Twit­ter’s behav­iour is an exam­ple of the plat­forms’ most griev­ous sin: wel­com­ing a bad actor to the net­work on a red car­pet of false praise and approval, then — once they real­ize they screwed up — fol­low­ing that up with large dos­es of denial, sense­less appease­ment, and will­ful blind­ness. When a bad actor such as Jones gets a foot in the door, the dynam­ic of mak­ing big­ger ‘asks’ can esca­late over time and end with the oth­er par­ty being treat­ed like a door­mat. I’m sur­prised Twit­ter’s CEO has­n’t yet come for­ward to acknowl­edge this.

Allow­ing Jones entry to third-par­ty plat­forms and not object­ing to his pres­ence essen­tial­ly paved the way for him to take advan­tage of oth­ers’ polite­ness, which, after an unfor­tu­nate chain of events, leaves us with this weird sit­u­a­tion where some of the man­age­ment would pre­fer to see the harm he’s caused as an issue of free­dom of speech rather than net­work abuse, imply­ing said con­duct is some­how deserv­ing of at least as much con­sid­er­a­tion, pro­tec­tion, and patience as the con­tent of oth­er users who not only inter­act more polite­ly but also don’t work to active­ly poi­son social media net­works with rad­i­cal­iza­tion (or as Jones likes to call it, his ‘cul­ture war’).

Giv­ing some­one like Alex Jones the ben­e­fit of the doubt amounts to offer­ing up apol­o­gism and a false equiv­a­len­cy at best. At worst, this cul­ture of poor­ly fil­tered per­mis­sive­ness is what cre­ates the laun­dry list of mis­guid­ed expec­ta­tions and expe­ri­ences that sets both sides on an inevitable col­li­sion course for exact­ly the kind of head-on ‘cul­ture war’ con­fronta­tion Jones loves to manufacture.

To put it anoth­er way: “A strange game. The only win­ning move is not to play.”

This is why wel­com­ing Alex Jones onto your plat­form, or let­ting him stay once you’ve real­ized he’s try­ing to start a pres­ence on your plat­form, is a los­ing bet. It’s also why bar­ring him after wel­com­ing him for any length of time is a los­ing bet. The moment there’s con­flict, that fric­tion becomes red meat to his believ­ers and sol­id gold in his bank account.

Qui­et com­pli­ance is the invis­i­ble leg up and mag­i­cal ‘go-ahead’ that con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists love. It’s the strate­gic cousin of the man­ner in which polit­i­cal extrem­ists will hijack the work­ings and insti­tu­tions of a democ­ra­cy to destroy democ­ra­cy itself. At first many peo­ple think they can give it a pass on paper because it tech­ni­cal­ly pass­es muster and they want to veer toward not being intru­sive. On close inspec­tion though, some tac­tics are mutu­al­ly exclu­sive and at odds with the exis­tence of a sta­ble, well-man­nered demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety. His­to­ry has demon­strat­ed this many times. Some­times the real­iza­tion comes too late, oth­er times the checks and bal­ances kick in just in time to avert a dis­as­ter. With­out this uncrit­i­cal com­pli­ance, the whims of extrem­ists are ham­pered and their suc­cess­es lim­it­ed by open dia­logue and prop­er accountability.

When it comes to the plat­forms that gave Alex the boot, I won­der, did any­one in man­age­ment have an under­stand­ing of the game that was being played? Did they think they could just walk away? Did they think his fans, pro­po­nents, and apol­o­gists would accept the results of a net-abuse inves­ti­ga­tion? Did any­one think they could cast him out and not have to deal with a dra­ma fest?

Reminder: you’re deal­ing with some­one whose spe­cial­ty is media com­mu­ni­ca­tions and con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries (you’re not read­ing from the same rule book, nev­er mind the same uni­verse), he’s been at it a very long time (he’s good at bam­boo­zling the press and spin­ning sto­ries), and he’s not a calm per­son (you’re in for a fight). Oh, and the Pres­i­dent of the US thinks he’s cool. Allegedly.

Either those in charge lacked sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness, or they chose not to deal with the mat­ter even after numer­ous red flags start­ed pop­ping up. It’s not dif­fi­cult to see from a dis­tance what a per­son like Jones is all about. He’s nev­er been shy about his mes­sage. Did plat­form man­age­ment turn away for fear of look­ing fool­ish in ret­ro­spect? Sav­ing face is a pos­si­bil­i­ty, and prob­a­bly the most benign assump­tion giv­en the cur­rent outcome.

The fer­tile soil of too many peo­ple hav­ing giv­en Jones a pass was what let him expand his mar­ket, com­pound­ed by silence from those who rea­son­ably had the capac­i­ty to act as gatekeepers.

Jones’ par­tic­u­lar brand of rad­i­cal­ism is no joke. It’s dan­ger­ous owing pri­mar­i­ly to its end­less­ly chaot­ic and ever-chang­ing style, cou­pled with the way each new the­o­ry feeds on the tail of the last.

From a cul­tur­al stand­point, we use pub­lic aware­ness cam­paigns to bol­ster the com­mon good by address­ing the dan­gers of things that could harm a great num­ber of peo­ple (i.e. cults, sub­stance abuse, gang recruit­ment, motor vehi­cle defects, smok­ing). While there’s been a trend in recent years to bet­ter under­stand and tack­le the issue of reli­gious rad­i­cal­iza­tion, many groups are being tracked and many domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al inci­dents have arisen that make the case for a need to tack­le oth­er kinds of rad­i­cal­ism as well, includ­ing that found in many of the con­tem­po­rary con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry move­ments. The frame­works and knowl­edge bases to do so have exist­ed for decades, and there have been incre­men­tal improve­ments in recent mem­o­ry to address the unique chal­lenges posed by online communications.

This is the part I think Big Tech real­ly fucked up on when it got to han­dling the Alex Jones sit­u­a­tion. Instead of set­ting up a frame­work to pre­vent prob­lems in advance or man­age the sit­u­a­tion as issues arose, the sit­u­a­tion grew and grew until the first com­pa­ny had a freak­out and began copi­ous­ly wield­ing the ban­ham­mer, then every­one else who’d been deal­ing with sim­i­lar prob­lems for years saw their exam­ple and said, “Why not, what do I have to lose?” and jumped on the bandwagon.

The media corp dog­pile that result­ed seemed espe­cial­ly con­trived and arti­fi­cial because it’s com­mon knowl­edge to users of most plat­forms that Face­book and Youtube are noto­ri­ous for their inde­ci­sive nature, patchy com­mu­ni­ca­tion and scat­tered appli­ca­tion of AUPs. To have things sud­den­ly go crys­tal clear all at the same time just feels weird and out of place. No doubt it also makes for some won­der­ful con­spir­a­cy fuel that will load Jones’ pock­ets up with mon­ey from future book sales and speak­ing tours.

This is why a pre­ven­ta­tive approach with ongo­ing mit­i­ga­tion is need­ed. One, don’t let a tick­ing time bomb in the front door, and do deal with it if you learn you’ve let this hap­pen. Two, don’t be afraid to speak out. Three, use con­sis­tent pol­i­cy enforce­ment with feed­back cycles and only make use of clear­ly agreed, clear­ly defined pro­gres­sive dis­ci­pli­nary action. That last part I can’t stress enough — it’s lit­er­al­ly the dif­fer­ence between tak­ing action on an ass­hole who can’t fol­low site rules, ver­sus turn­ing said ass­hole into a martyr.

When peo­ple don’t design ear­ly warn­ing and mit­i­ga­tion into a site, and espe­cial­ly if they fail to fol­low up on seri­ous plat­form mis­use, it can leave very few tools to deal with the result­ing prob­lem, espe­cial­ly on sen­si­tive mat­ters like the Jones sit­u­a­tion. Try­ing to stop a con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry move­ment is part del­i­cate surgery, part cult depro­gram­ming and the labour needs are intense. Bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion and feed­back, grad­ual changes and con­sis­tent rule enforce­ment all pay div­i­dends over the long run, but no amount of ban­ham­mer wield­ing makes up for a fail­ure to stay proactive.

While it seems tech com­pa­nies are final­ly real­iz­ing it was a mis­take to let such an oppor­tunist in the front door and think he could mind the house by him­self, the big­ger issues seem to be speak­ing up and set­ting appro­pri­ate coun­ter­mea­sures to the mes­sag­ing Jones has been using.

By all means, block him from your plat­forms if he’s not in line with your per­son­al morals or cor­po­rate eth­i­cal code, I doubt there are many out there who gen­uine­ly align with him any­ways. But if you’re going to do that, the treat­ment needs to be in line with the same AUP and ways in which you man­age the day to day behav­iour of your oth­er users. Let­ting bad stuff slide for years is bad, but so is decid­ing to snap all of a sud­den and say you can’t take it anymore.

Also, hav­ing a bias in favour of the truth is still a bias, so you don’t get to please every­body all of the time by claim­ing you’re bias free (which is more and more what the theme of this game seems to be sound­ing like). Put on your big-per­son pants, find your spine, and accept that rea­son­able peo­ple owe nobody an apol­o­gy for speak­ing the truth and set­ting healthy boundaries.

What these com­pa­nies thought they could gain by let­ting con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry con­tent creep in and pro­lif­er­ate, God only knows. What I can see from where I’m stand­ing is that in the after­math, there’s a hell of a mess to clean up, the buzz is gone and the hang­over’s just beginning.

Good luck, Big Tech.

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