With the removal of the conspiracy theorists material from key platforms, firms have changed their tune on free speech but some see the move as more about money than morality
At this very moment, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is almost certainly sitting in front of a camera, shouting that he has been silenced. If you are so inclined, you can easily watch and listen along, either by going to his website, downloading his iPhone and Android apps, or following him on Twitter.
What you can no longer do, as of Monday, is consume Jones toxic brew of lies, hate and product placement (his own term for this is Infowars) via Facebook, YouTube or Spotify. After Apple decided to stop distributing Jones podcasts on Sunday, the other powerful online distribution platforms swiftly followed suit.
Jones has desperately attempted to frame his de-platforming as a first amendment violation, but those who invoke the specter of a slippery slope toward authoritarian censorship distract from true significance of this moment: that we are at an inflection point in the way internet platforms conceive of and protect public discourse for society at large.
The banishment of Infowars followed an excruciatingly long period of prevarication by Facebook and YouTube companies that have spent the last two years promising to crack down on bad actors who purposefully sow misinformation and incite violence while simultaneously hosting (and amplifying the reach of) Americas most notorious purveyor of the same.
The crisis was not precipitated by anything in particular that Jones said or did such as his longstanding and baseless allegation that the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked. Instead, it was a pointed question from a CNN reporter at a Facebook event touting its work on misinformation that focused public attention on Jones. Once Facebook was forced to argue its position, it was only a matter of time before the contradiction became too great to bear.
Facebook, Jones, his supporters and some civil libertarians attempted to invoke the distinctly American conception of free speech in defending Jones right to use private technology platforms, but such arguments fall apart under scrutiny.
American social media companies have always censored speech, principally in order to attract advertisers, and secondarily in order to prevent harm against users. This is why these companies banned female nipples long before they banned white supremacists.
By moving beyond the knee-jerk framing of Jones removal as a free speech issue, we can view his de-platforming as an attempt to clean up the waters he has muddied with misinformation and hatred.
It seems like the beginning of a recognition that platforms can ban hateful tactics, not just explicitly hateful speech; that they can protect public discourse by banning those who strategically work to sour [it], said Tarleton Gillespie, author of Custodians of the Internet.
For too long, social media companies have policed their platforms as if users are either genuine and acting in good faith or bad actors who violate the rules.
These rules dont apply to Jones, whose playbook is to foster distrust and confusion, shout people down and make meaningful public discourse impossible. He dressed inflammatory, false and cruel statements sometimes as legitimate speech, mere theater at others, and his readers like and forward it like its the latest viral cat video, Gillespie said.
He produces the commodity that mimics what platforms want, and pretends to be the contribution they swear to protect, he added.