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.