Banning Alex Jones & InfoWars: Social Media Grows Up

This just in from the better-late-than-never department.

Last week Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify “deplatformed” Alex Jones’ InfoWars from their platforms and pages.  It took them years to acknowledge that InfoWars violated their terms of service and it was time to say goodbye to the angry Mr Jones.

The only holdout is Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, who says Twitter will not remove InfoWars because Alex Jones did not violate Twitter’s terms of service, specifically Twitter’s safety rules which require someone to “cross the line” into threatening violence before they are banned.

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Alex Jones

Dorsey and his supporters raised a number of arguments to support this position, none of which are persuasive.  Here’s the rundown:

Banning Alex Jones is a violation of free speech:  Wrong.  It’s the government, not corporations, that are prohibited from infringing one’s right of free speech, and even then, free speech is not unlimited.  It can be restricted by laws against hate speech, defamation, etc.

It’s wrong to allow giant internet companies to act collectively and become the de facto arbiter of speech:  This allegation is based on unsubstantiated assumptions.  There is no evidence these companies acted in concert.  There is no evidence these companies will become the de facto arbiter of speech.  But most importantly, there is no law preventing them from enforcing their own Terms of Service.  Mr Jones raised a similar argument, calling upon Donald Trump to deal with this act of “corporate totalitarianism”.  It sounds silly coming from Mr Jones and it sounds even sillier coming from those who support Twitter’s position.

Mr Jones did/did not violate the Terms of Service:  Rather than review every company’s Terms of Service (they’re similar), let’s focus on Facebook.  It’s Terms of Service say FB will not condone conduct that violates community standards including hate speech and bullying.  FB says it will remove content that “encourages real-world harm, including (but not limited to) physical, financial and emotional injury”.  The user agrees not to engage in such conduct or to facilitate or support others in doing so.

Twitter’s Terms of Service prohibit “behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice…[or] specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people”.  Abuse is defined as “the targeted harassment of someone” or inciting others to do so.

We could spend all day dissecting Mr Jones’ assertions that the moon landing was faked, Democrats ran a sex slave operation out of a pizza parlor, the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax and the students at Parkland are crisis actors, but in the interests of time, let’s focus on the story of Brennan Gilmore’s experience at Charlottesville.

Mr Gilmore attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville as part of his “civic duty to bear witness”.  He witnessed the car attack by a white supremacist on a crowd of anti-racist protesters and uploaded the video to the internet when people said the attack was an accident not intentional.

Within 24 hours the internet was awash with conspiracy theories.  Mr Jones amplified these theories by posting a “bombshell” investigation to his 2.4 million InfoWars YouTube subscribers that alleged Mr Gilmore was an operative in a George Soros plot to overthrow the president on behalf of the “dark state”.  Mr Gilmore and his family have been receiving death threats ever since.   

Under FB’s Terms of Service Mr Jones’ actions were a violation of the prohibition against hate speech, bullying, and facilitating or supporting others in such conduct.  Under Twitter’s Terms of Service Mr Jones’ actions could be considered “abuse”, namely the targeted harassment of someone or inciting others to do so.

Somewhere along the way since Charlottesville, Facebook decided Mr Gilmore “crossed the line”.  Twitter has yet to get there.

It’s hard to enforce the Terms of Service:  Critics complain that “community standards” are fluid and “hate speech” is a difficult concept therefore it’s difficult to police these sites and enforce these policies.  While that may be true in some cases, it’s not true in the InfoWars case.  Mr Jones is crystal clear about who the “enemy” is and what “patriots” should do about him/her.

Not my job:  When called upon to justify his position, Twitter’s Mr Dorsey said “Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions.  This is what serves the public conversation best.”

There are two problems with Mr Dorsey’s suggestion: (1) it’s the job of Twitter, not journalists, to enforce Twitter’s Terms of Service, and (2) journalists have enough to do to track down and document the truth without being asked to convince a conspiracy theorist to change his mind after it has been polluted by InfoWars. 

Mr Gilmore is a case in point.  He’s told journalists he is not a CIA operative for George Soros.  The conspiracy theorists say, “Well, of course he’s going to deny it.  He’s a CIA operative!”

At the end of the day

Eventually Mr Dorsey gave way on one point.  He agrees it’s not the journalists’ responsibility to clean up his mess.  Instead he adopted the suggestion made by Mike Masnick in TechDirt that social media companies should adopt a set of protocols that pass content control down to the end users.  Those who don’t want to be exposed to InfoWars can set up filters to screen themselves from the experience.

Leaving aside the obvious point that this solution renders Twitter’s Terms of Service meaningless, this suggestion makes no sense.  What’s the point of hiding InfoWars from people like Mr Gilmore when the company doesn’t hide InfoWars from the people who want to kill Mr Gilmore because they believe he’s a treasonous Soros operative?

Mr Dorsey says, “We’re committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.”

It’s time for Mr Dorsey to stop making excuses and put his money where his mouth is.

Sources:

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20180808/17090940397/platforms-speech-truth-policy-policing-impossible-choices.shtml

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/21/fake-news-charlottesville-215514

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-august-8-2018-1.4777255/aug-8-2018-episode-transcript-1.4778330

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21 Responses to Banning Alex Jones & InfoWars: Social Media Grows Up

  1. J.E. Molnar says:

    Another excellent and timely post Ms Soapbox. Speaking of putting your money where your mouth is…

    Yesterday the Washington Post also ran an opinion piece on how these “online hatemongers” like Alex Jones and Fox News are facing a concerted and strong opposition for their unseemly views. A courageous group of social media users, known as Sleeping Giants, are pressuring advertisers, (see the link below) urging them to remove their paid advertisements from these designated hate sites.

    Rebel Media, the Breitbart/InfoWars wannabe media outlet in Canada, has also faced an advertiser backlash because of their odious views (see link below). It seems this approach is working quite well, both in Canada and the US — proving once again that money talks and bullsh*t walks!

    https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/marketing/advertisers-bow-to-pressure-to-pull-ads-from-the-rebel/article35181695/

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/online-activists-wield-a-secret-weapon-against-hatemongers-like-alex-jones-hint-its-big/2018/08/10/2ab14fee-9b15-11e8-8d5e-c6c594024954_story.html?utm_term=.bf87f401fbbd

    • Thanks for the links J.E. A few days ago the Twitter CEO said “relying on algorithms alone will not work…We need to figure out how to help with economic incentives too. We’re behind on that, but thinking deeply about it.” I don’t know what Dorsey means by “economic incentives”, but it appears from the two articles you sent economic “disincentives” (ie. a drop in advertising revenue) are extremely effective.
      I can’t help but comment on the ridiculous way Levant characterized the social media effort to get Whistler’s ads off The Rebel. He said it was “public virtue-signalling by a few junior Maoists bad mouthing their own company’s customers as being politically unhygenic.” Brietbart went one better. They called Sleeping Giants “the anonymous leftist group that organizes social media mobs in an effort to silence conservative voices.” Can they get more self-righteous?

  2. Joe says:

    Based on Mr. Dorsey’s position, I deleted my Twitter account. The relative insignificance of my gesture is not lost on me!
    From my perspective, the problem isn’t about the fluidity of community standards. Increasingly, I am faced with new realities that strongly suggest I have either misjudged those standards, or that they don’t actually exist.
    Within the standards I had all but taken for granted, Donald Trump could not have won the Republican nomination, become President, nor have remained in that Office. And yet, all of this has occurred. You may argue that the 40% of Americans polled who approve of Donald Trump do not represent the “community standard”. Those people might argue that, in a democracy, they are either 11% away from doing just that, or that their particular version of community standards were already settled in the 2016 Presidential election.
    Susan, please understand, I don’t disagree with anything you have said, but I really believe that Progressives need to stop worrying about Trump, Jones, Pierro, Hannity, Limbaugh, Carlson, etc. Nor should they focus quite as much on the platforms that personalities like this employ. Instead, Progressives need to figure out why 40% craves that particular kind of content.
    My own theory (for the little it is worth) involves the idea of “politics as entertainment”. In this respect, I think that the “Right” is far more entertaining than the “Left”. (Except for Bernie, although I’m not certain he has come to appreciate his own entertainment value…which is considerable IMO). It’s not that people don’t want good leadership but, in terms of immediate gratification, instead of good policy, they would rather be stimulated and amused. In that respect, the “Right” has a dynamite lineup and has done a nice job of integrating and aligning their political entertainers with complementary media channels.
    The idea that politics has become a marketable entertainment product also explains why facts (or even reality) no longer matter. Those who have studied it understand that theatre of any kind can only succeed when the audience agrees to “suspend disbelief”. The moment you walk into a theatre, you agree to accept the reality of that medium. It is more than just abandoning scepticism.
    You agree to perceive the set as the Director intends and accept improbable or even impossible content so that your emotions can be triggered and manipulated in a manner that humans universally find entertaining.
    Unfortunately, politics has become a theatre that you can’t really walk out of.

    • Joe, thank you for this thought provoking comment. I’ve never thought about politics as entertainment, but your explanation of how a reality TV star became president makes sense. It reminds me of the comment by the Roman poet Juvenal who said “[W]e sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated [their] duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” Wikipedia says “bread and circuses” refers to generating public approval not by good public service or public policy, but by diversion, distraction or satisfying the most basic needs of the electorate “by offering a palliative: for example food (bread) or entertainment (circuses)”. Juvenal said given the public’s selfishness and their ignorance of civic duty it’s the most effective way to rise to power.
      As you astutely point out, Trump, Alex Jones, et al certainly satisfy the “entertainment” part of the equation. It’s hard to counterbalance such an over-the-top performance.
      In the Canadian context, perhaps that’s why the conservatives go berserk every time Justin Trudeau posts a selfie. Trudeau has more “star” quality than Andrew Scheer and Jason Kenney put together.

  3. Dwayne says:

    Susan: This is good that they did this. I thought this also happened to the Rebel Media people, to some extent, where some of their social media platforms were removed. They need to go further. Their YouTube channel need to be removed. There are people who post nasty things on the Rebel sites, (and their former “journalists” sites), like death threats to politicians, misogyny, and racist comments. I even see it on actual news channels. Little is done about it, but I hope that changes. Great blog, once again.

    • Thanks Dwayne. Your point is well taken given that YouTube banned Alex Jones. I’ve seen a few Rebel clips and they appear to be cut from the same cloth. What I find shocking (although I probably shouldn’t be surprised) is the willingness of politicians like Michelle Rempel and other prominent conservatives to appear on The Rebel. But I guess if you’re going to flog conservative principles as redefined by Jason Kenney, Maxime Bernier and Andrew Scheer a far right conservative platform run by “the Rebel commander” is the place to be. This brings us back to Joe’s point about politics as entertainment, it’s sad really

      • jerrymacgp says:

        Just as an aside, the Star Tek: Original Series second season episode “Bread and Circuses” featured a parallel Earth whose Roman Empire had never fallen, but instead had achieved 20th-century technology, and broadcast gladiatorial games on live network TV … any resemblance to MMA is, I’m sure, purely coincidental.

      • Jerrymacgp: How interesting! A more recent example is The Hunger Games movies which portrayed a “Bread and Circuses” dystopian future. Donald Sutherland starred as the President of the Capitol of Panem (bread). He said he hoped the public would take what they saw on the screen–teenagers fighting to the death in the annual Hunger Games (circus)–and apply it to the real world. Needless to say, the public missed the point.

      • Dwayne says:

        Susan: Then, we see people getting upset about censorship. Saying unacceptable things and getting taken to task for it, is not censorship, in my opinion. Social media sites and the owners of channels (like news channels) need to be more agressive in filtering out the bad stuff. It can go too far.

  4. Edison says:

    I too am a big fan of using my clout as a consumer, as little as it is, along with moral suasion to petition sources of revenue to withdraw their financial support of ventures I consider repulsive and inexcusably immoral.

    When first trying to appeal to a sense of basic decency and compassion from someone like Alex Jones doesn’t work, I’m more than happy to join any critical mass that attempts another route. As I did today here, and I think I will sleep better tonight for it

    • Edison thanks for providing the link to Shannon Coulter’s instructions. I see that over 70 thousand Twitter users “liked” her tweet. If we all join the mass block process it might provide the financial disincentive the disingenuous Jack Darcy needs. It’s worth a try!

  5. ronmac says:

    Jack may be dragging his heels on banning Alex Jones but he’s been busy banning lotsa other people.

  6. Ronmac: this was a very interesting clip for a number of reasons:
    (1) Peter Van Buren says he got into a twitter spat with journalists when he tweeted it was the journalists’ responsibility to figure out that he lied to them when he was a representative of the State Dept. (It’s interesting that Fox is more worried about the banning, than the State Dept or Van Buren’s lack of integrity).
    (2) Van Buren says he doesn’t know why Twitter banned him for life. Van Buren’s wiki site says Twitter banned him for writing that “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice”. That’s a very serious accusation and Twitter should tell Van Buren and all of its Twitter users what it was Van Buren said that crossed the line.
    (3) Tucker Carson makes the gratuitous comment that virtually all of the Washington establishment, especially most journalists, are “reflexively pro-war in the creepiest possible way”. This implies that Twitter bans pacifists like Van Buren (?) but not creepy pro-war hawks. It’s an outrageous allegation to be making on national television. I can’t imagine a professional newscaster like Walter Cronkite saying something like that.
    Fascinating times…bread and circuses.

    • ronmac says:

      All this talk about banning and censorship has made me uneasy. Humans have been spreading fake news stories since the invention of that first social media platform -cave wall drawings.

      A few weeks ago national security types were getting on TV warning the Russians were using social media to divide Americans and turn them against each other. What does this mean? Express an opinion that goes against the mainstream and you are being manipulated by some foreign power. The basis of democracy is debate and expression of diverse opinions.

      This just in! Seems Jack is giving Alex Jones a “timeout” as if he’s a teacher getting control overan unruly classroom.

      https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/exclusive-twitter-ceo-on-alex-jones-timeout-1299513411754?v=railbB_mmwo?t=158

      • Ronmac, this are two different things. The warning from national security advisors about the Russians using social media to turn Americans against each other is an attempt to get social media users to think critically about what they’re seeing on social media. Twitter exercising its right to enforce its own Terms of Service against a user who violates them is a matter of contract law.
        We can discuss whether the warning from the national security advisors is well founded (who knows anymore) but there’s no question that Twitter has the right to suspend Alex Jones when its Terms of Service clearly state that by signing up for Twitter a user enters a binding contract and agrees to be bound by its terms. Twitter’s terms of service prohibit posting something that “intends only to incite or engage in the targeted harassment of others” or “directly or indirectly threatens or encourages any form of physical violence against an individual or any group of people”. My only issue with Twitter is that it took too long to take action.

  7. jerrymacgp says:

    So, if you want to post a billboard, or one of those semi-trailers we see parked along highways with messages painted on them, on private property, you need permission from the landowner. That landowner doesn’t need to honour your “freedom of expression” rights; he or she or they get to decide for themselves whether to allow your message on their land, and that decision is not reviewable in any court (unless there’s a contract in place and a breach is alleged).

    YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest are simply virtual private property, and they have the exclusive right to decide what can or cannot be posted on their property. There is no constitutional argument to be made in either Canada or the United States.

  8. David says:

    I have mixed feelings about banning people. Perhaps it is the word banning itself, or the issue which is not really the people, but their words or actions. However, I suppose if those organizations are unwilling or unable to moderate their content well or at all, we are left with banning people who have a history of making offensive comments.

    One of the root problems here I think is we tend to apply different standards to social media than conventional media. If they wouldn’t let you say it in a newspaper or on TV, then probably its not a good idea to post it on Facebook or on Twitter. I know the internet and social media started with an idealistic free speech approach. It might have worked well when there was a limited number of users who were perhaps more responsible and users who mostly self policed himself, but now that everyone and their dog is on Facebook, it has turned into the wild west at times.

    I suppose it is also cheaper and more convenient for organizations like Facebook to disclaim any responsibility for the postings of their more rabid users, but I think this is wrong. For example, just go to your neighbourhood Safeway and try put something up on their community bulletin board that is controversial or potentially libelous and see how that goes. The main difference in my mind is it easier to manage and monitor a little community bulletin board than the internet. However, all the social media organizations have do terms of service, so it is up to them to monitor and enforce them accordingly.

    For a number of reasons, I think the era of the wild west in social media is coming to an end. Hopefully, that is not at too much expense of free speech, but I suppose it is up to us as a society to monitor that paert, just as it is up to the social media organization to monitor the content posted.

    • David, I think you’re right when you say we apply different standards to social media than traditional media. No one thinks we have a fundamental right to force the traditional media platforms to publish our comments (the newspaper doesn’t publish every letter to the editor) and yet we get up in arms when a social media platform “bans” someone for publishing material that contravenes its terms of service. Social media platforms don’t do this lightly, they start by suspending a user’s account for a couple of days in the hope that the user changes his behavior. If he refuses to change his behavior he’s banned pursuant to the terms of the contract the user and the social media company entered into on Day One.
      It’s not a violation of the fundamental right of freedom of speech or trampling on one’s democratic right to civil discourse, it’s the enforcement of a commercial contract which allows Twitter to suspend Alex Jones from using its services if Jones refuses to comply with Twitter’s terms of service.
      Perhaps the more important issue is how do Twitter and other social media platforms decide what kind of behavior “crosses the line”. Sometimes if feels like that comment by the US Supreme Court judge who was asked to decide whether a movie was obscene. He said he wouldn’t itemize a list of stuff that would fall within the definition of “hard-core pornography” but he knows it when he sees it. (In this case the movie was “The Lovers” by Louis Malle. The judge decided it wasn’t obscene).

  9. ronmac says:

    By no means has the recent social media bannings been restricted to twitter. Telesurtv, which provides an alernative perspective on news from Latin America, recently had its Facebook page taken down without explanation, for the second time.

    https://www.telesurtv.net/english/analysis/What-Is-Behind-Facebook-Deleting-teleSUR-Englishs-Page-20180816-0010.html

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