In an increasingly polarized political climate where media companies are often painted as the enemy, experts warn the corporate crackdown on conspiracy-theory peddler Alex Jones may drive some to embrace his fringe narratives.
Apple, YouTube, Facebook and Spotify have all removed Jones’ content from their platforms over the last week, amid backlash against the conspiracy theories he touts through his far-right website, InfoWars. The media giants said Jones violated their community standards with his inflammatory content.
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Jones rose to prominence by touting a wide range of unverified or demonstrably false claims. He’s argued that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. were staged, and that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a hoax to promote gun control. Neither one was true.
The Sandy Hook conspiracy theory has landed him in court, where he faces a US$1-million lawsuit from the family of a Sandy Hook victim who says they’ve been harassed by his followers.
The case also appears to have thrown his inflammatory rhetoric into the spotlight, drawing protests on social media and censorship from several leading tech companies.
But political science professor Joseph Uscinski says censoring Jones’ conspiracy theories might ultimately do more harm than good, particularly when it comes to allowing people to make up their own minds about competing views.
“It does scare me that you have these big corporations deciding now what can and can’t be heard,” Uscinski, who studies conspiracy theories at the University of Miami, told Global News on Tuesday.
“I’m not a big fan of censoring conspiracy theories, even ones that are just truly wrong and potentially dangerous.”
Uscinski suggests the David-versus-Goliath narrative of Jones’ situation might even make his message more attractive to those who distrust authority. He says eyes of conspiracy theorists, it seems as though “he big corporations and the big government have censored these ideas.”
“It’s only going to make them more alluring,” Uscinski said.
He adds that conspiracy theories are an important element of public discourse, because they allow the weak to question the powerful.
“You have to be able to push back against government narratives,” he said. “If the narratives are good, they’ll stand on their own.”
Brent Bozell, the president of the nonprofit Media Research Council, whose stated mission is to “to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left: the national news media,” called the removal of Infowars content a “slippery slope.”
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But while some criticized the move against Jones as stifling free speech, others hailed it for appearing to curb some of the fringe views that gain an outsized voice through social media.
“What it reflects is a slow realization that the platforms are megaphones to fuel extremist ideas,” Keegan Hankes, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, told The Associated Press on Monday.
Hankes says the move against Jones has been “a long time coming.”
However, he’s not surprised that Jones continues to have a voice on Twitter — a platform that remains popular among some far-right figures.
Jones has been sharing live broadcasts on Twitter since he was ousted from Facebook and YouTube.
“The internet Dark Ages has now descended upon us, where radical left-wing tech giants run by deranged, mentally ill communists will decide whether your content qualifies as ‘hate speech,'” he tweeted on Tuesday.
His Twitter following has surged in the wake of the crackdown. He added more than 16,000 followers through Monday and the first half of Tuesday, following a week in which he gained no more than 410 followers in a single day, according to the tracking tool Social Blade. Infowars also saw an uptick in followers after a week of stagnant growth.
The corporate crackdown
Facebook said it removed Alex Jones pages “for glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies.”
The Alex Jones Channel on YouTube on Monday displayed a banner saying the account had been terminated for violating community guidelines. A spokesperson told Reuters by email that repeated violation of policies such as those prohibiting hate speech and harassment led to the termination of accounts.
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Apple deleted most Infowars podcasts and a spokeswoman said in a statement that the company “does not tolerate hate speech” and publishes guidelines that developers and publishers must follow.
“Podcasts that violate these guidelines are removed from our directory making them no longer searchable or available for download or streaming,” Apple said in a statement.
“We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions.”
Twitter told Reuters in an email that content posted to other websites often was not put on Twitter and that tweets from Infowars typically were replied to by people rebutting and challenging it. If Infowars violates Twitter rules in the future, it will take action, it added.
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press