Anyone with even a passing interest in US politics in recent years cannot have helped but come across Infowars, the website, podcast, and TV channel run by the notorious Alex Jones.
Like so much in American politics of late, Infowars has divided opinion across America, with many enthralled by Jones’ charismatic persona, gripping narratives, and alt-right views.
For others, Infowars is the epitome of the new trend of ‘fake news’, pedaling conspiracy theories, rumour, and falsehood as genuine news and information. Not much that Jones says on Infowars stands up to scrutiny. But the debate raging at the moment is whether he has the right to say it.
Because over the past couple of weeks, Infowars has seen its content being taken down by a whole host of different online wars. The question is, are they right to do this, and are we comfortable with tech companies becoming the arbiter of what can and cannot be published online?
Tech companies shutting down Infowars
It all started back in March when YouTube took down an Infowars video which referred to a victim of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting as a ‘crisis actor’.
Then, on July 25th, YouTube removed four more videos by Infowars stating that they violated company’s policies relating to hate speech and child endangerment. It was that decision which opened the floodgates.
Facebook was next, pulling four videos for breaching their community policies and banning Jones from posting videos to his personal page for 30 days. Then, on August 1st, Spotify removed several episodes of the Infowars podcast on the grounds that they breached its recently-reviewed hate speech policies.
Following that lead, Stitcher then pulled the Infowars podcasts entirely, and Apple removed all but one Infowars podcasts from iTunes.
That when things really began to spiral. Facebook removed four entire pages linked to Infowars, Pinterest took down’s Infowars presence, LinkedIn removed Jones’ profile, Mailchimp forced Jones off their platform, and even YouPorn banned all Infowars content.
Many of these later arrivals said they were taking action in solidarity with other tech companies and cited their own corporate policies as justification for the move.
Not every tech company has been led like sheep. Instagram and Snapchat have not yet taken down any content related to Jones and Infowars, while Twitter has vigorously defended their decision not to shut down Jones’ account.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has gone public to say that Jones has not yet broken any Twitter rules and express his views of the importance of freedom of expression.
And that is the key dilemma that has emerged from this wave of action against Infowars and Alex Jones. Because, however false, vile, and hateful you may find the content of Infowars, the question is whether that should be enough to stop Jones from having the right to say it.
There is a paradox with many people who are virulently against online censorship by Governments and authoritarian regimes around the world yet seem happy to endorse the censorship of Infowars for no better reason than they dislike its content.
Surely that cannot be the basis for online censorship to be permitted? There is a world of difference between Alex Jones’ crackpot conspiracy theories and the out-and-out hatred and incitement to violence that is pedalled from some other far-right and neo-Nazi sites which have been blocked in the US in recent times.
Is it right for American’s to condemn the Communist regime in China for shutting down online political debate online, yet not being willing to engage in it themselves?
Surely the best way to deal with the Infowars conspiracy theories is to expose them for what they really are; highlight their falsehood, demonstrate their inaccuracy, and mock their stupidity?
No easy answers
But perhaps the bigger question is, even if you are happy for Infowars to be blocked, do you really want that decision to be made by tech companies? Alex Jones has faced no criminal charges for inciting hatred and there has been no court order to remove Infowars content from the web. Yet it is gone.
This is a unilateral decision being taken by tech companies, many of whom have openly admitted that they only took action because other sites had.
Obviously, they are private businesses and can allow what they want on their site, but given how dependent we have become on these sites for information, is it right that they can wield this level of information over the public debate?
There are no easy answers and it is a debate that will rumble on long after the Infowars farrago has died down.
People can always use tools like a VPN to bypass state censorship, but when tech companies are unilaterally removing content altogether, the debate over online censorship becomes altogether more complicated.