He is treated as the bogeyman of conspiracy entertainment, and Alex Jones has become a prominent figure for advancing a host of unsavoury views. High on his list of incendiaries is the claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting never took place and was the work of paid fantasists, with the victims’ parents being “crisis actors”. “Sandy Hook,” went Jones in a January 2015 broadcast, “is a synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured.” The parents of two children killed at the school massacre are suing.
There are seemingly few limits to the Jones armoury of hyper-scepticism. But Jones has been in the business of such production for years. Now, a campaign for banishing him from various platforms, including Infowars, has been enacted with a degree of censorious ferocity. Summary bans have been made, ranging from the giants such as Apple, Twitter and Spotify, to Pinterest and MailChimp.
Apple took the lead in this competitive banning binge, removing five of the six Infowars podcasts available via iTunes this week, including “The Alex Jones Show” and “War Room”, while Facebook removed four Infowars pages for violating the company’s guidelines.
An Apple spokesperson explained the company’s position in a statement: “Apple does not tolerate hate speech, and we have clear guidelines that creators and developers must follow to ensure we provide a safe environment for all our users.” Accordingly, “Podcasts that violate these guidelines are removed from our directory making them no longer searchable or available for download or streaming. We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions.”
Spotify has also added its name to the list. “We take reports of hate content seriously,” went a statement, “and review any podcast episode or song that is flagged by our community. Due to repeated violations of Spotify’s prohibited content policies, The Alex Jones Show has lost access to the Spotify platform.”
Who is guarding whom, and who should decide which ideas are significantly safe, less discomforting or otherwise? Contraries are, by definition, discomforting; the contrarian, by definition, dangerously disruptive. The idea of social media platforms becoming a constabulary for the controlling of opinion – located in the vague economy of “hate” – is ominous. Nor have these technology mammoths articulated “a clear standard,” as Ben Shapiro notes, “by which the conspiracy theorist should be banned”.
Twitter prefers a different approach. “We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or Infowars yesterday,” came Jack Dorsey’s announcement on the medium he helped found. “We know it’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules. We’ll enforce if he does.”
For Dorsey, the role of policing Jones is not for Twitter and such platforms, but the media proper, an estate that has been somewhat remiss in recent years. He did not want to take “one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories.”
This in, and of, itself sensible view has drawn the predictable moralising and indignation. Aja Romano of Vox is particularly riled. “This response is breathtakingly amoral, as well as regressive, terrible decision-making – for Twitter, for the internet, for all of us. It should be a moment of reckoning for everyone who uses Twitter.”
Words do move and change worlds, and care should, at select times, be taken, but who polices their dissemination and exchange remains key. Dorsey has simply diagnosed an inherent problem in the information ecosystem about rage and counter-rage: who controls the participants, bars or muzzles the competition, should not, by default, fall to the giants. For the market place of ideas to function with a fair degree of effect, it is participants who dictate their value, oiled by intermittent legal interventions to test the limits of free speech.
Free speech scholars have been sceptical about whether Jones can avail himself of the First Amendment protections. “False speech,” goes a submission by four jurists in an amicus brief in the Brennan Gilmore case, “does not serve the public interest the way that true speech does.” (Gilmore, a Democratic Party activist and former State Department official was in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017 attending a violent rally that subsequently saw the death of Heather Heyer, killed by a car driven by James Alex Fields, Jr.) Furthermore, the jurists insist that “there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.”
Jones, for his part, has submitted in court papers that his rubbishing of Gilmore (a CIA plant hired to foment disorder, he suggested) were opinions, rather than statements of fact while Infowars was a “freewheeling” website where “hyperbole and diatribe reign as the preferred tools of discourse.”
The other issue in such summary bans is how they are challenged. Tech platforms acting as righteous disciplinarians seems an odd thing, appropriating a degree of power they simply should not have. And foolishly, the campaign against Jones has given him a sense of dangerous frisson. His information and views will not necessarily disappear so much as migrate to other forums and mutate with aggression. The conspiracy theorist will ride again, even as the various tech giants bask in the ethical afterglow spurred on by anger and undefined standards of hate.