Infringing on a person’s First Amendment right is a serious accusation, one that activists have historically fought to defend through protests and exhibitions.
That’s not what’s happening to Alex Jones’ InfoWars.
Jones feels attacked. This week, Apple and Spotify removed his InfoWars podcast from their platforms, Facebook shut down four of his show pages and YouTube terminated his channel, which had more than 2.4 million subscribers. During a Periscope livestream following his termination yesterday, Jones addressed President Donald Trump, imploring him to use the midterm elections to address a wave of censorship he believes is targeting conservative voices.
“If you come out before the midterms and make the censorship the big issue of them trying to steal the election, and if you make the fact that we need an Internet Bill of Rights, and anti-trust busting on these companies ... if they don’t back off right now [...] then they will be able to steal the midterms and start the impeachment,” Jones said.
Jones followed his livestream with a tweet cementing his belief that he’s the far-right’s newfound martyr. According to the commentator, because he can no longer post videos about dangerous conspiracies like PizzaGate, or videos claiming the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting didn’t happen, he is a victim of oppression.
“Understand this: The censorship of Infowars just vindicates everything we’ve been saying,” Jones tweeted. “Now, who will stand against Tyranny and who will stand for free speech? We’re all Alex Jones now.”
Other popular right-wing YouTubers, including Glenn Beck, Secureteam10 and Daily Wire editor-in-chief, Ben Shapiro, echoed Jones’ rhetoric. Shapiro and Beck both said while they disagree with Jones’ views, YouTube’s move set a dangerous precedent. Beck referred to platforms removing Jones’ content as a “very sad day for freedom of speech.”
Apple, Facebook, Spotify and YouTube’s ban turned Jones into a martyr for the far-right and fringe communities looking for a new man to stand behind as they push their own agendas. But it’s not a freedom of speech issue, nor one of censorship. The First Amendment, which gives American citizens the freedom of speech, states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The United States government isn’t bringing the hammer down on Jones. This isn’t a political issue, as badly as Jones might want to pretend otherwise. YouTube, Facebook, Spotify, and Apple are all private companies. They’re allowed to enforce their own set of guidelines, and change those guidelines however they like. It’s also not a First Amendment issue when accountability behind certain words has repercussions for people who abuse the guidelines.
“Like any marketplace, the marketplace of ideas that the First Amendment was meant to protect cannot function properly without accountability for reprehensible conduct like the defendants,” plaintiffs argued in a recent defamation case against Jones, as reported by Rolling Stone. “The First Amendment has never protected demonstrably false, malicious statements like the defendants.”
By the ACLU definition of censorship, “the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive,’ happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others,” it could sound like Jones has a point. But the ACLU adds, “expression may be restricted only if it will clearly cause direct and imminent harm to an important societal interest.”
YouTube and other companies have had this asterisk sewn into their community guidelines for years. Jones’ content does “cause direct and imminent harm to an important societal interest”: the families of Sandy Hook victims have left their homes because of ongoing harassment; Jones perpetuated and promoted the dangerous conspiracy theory known as PizzaGate, which ended with a man showing up to a Washington pizzeria with guns; recently, Jones promoted the growing #QAnon conspiracy theory that experts have labeled as potentially dangerous.
Declarations and actions have actual consequences. Jones broke a set of clear rules.
The far-right’s argument is that more conservative voices are being censored on the platform, which brought on the rise of alternative video platforms like BitChute and SteemIt. Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s head of business, addressed concerns that YouTube was censoring conservative voices in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year.
“We have four freedoms under which YouTube operates: freedom of expression, freedom of opportunity, freedom to belong and freedom of information,” Kyncl said, reiterating comments he made to YouTuber Casey Neistat in February. “They truly become our North Star during difficult times. For me, having come from a place that didn’t have freedom of information and freedom of expression, they’re extremely important. Our message is that we absolutely are leaning in to freedom of information and freedom of expression, subject to our community guidelines.
“We don’t intend to be on one side or another.”
That included Jones, up until this week. Despite pleas from critics and scathing op-eds asking why the company hadn’t acted, Jones’ egregious remarks never prompted YouTube to take permanent action. YouTube’s administrative team issued individual strikes for prominent community guideline violations, but Jones’ channel remained intact. This is what happened around the time of Kyncl’s interview, just after a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in numerous conspiracy videos spreading on the platform referring to student David Hogg as a crisis actor.
Even though YouTube hasn’t outright banned any of the critics speaking out about the platform reportedly purging their content, it hasn’t stopped people from accusing the company of censorship. The fact remains, however, there’s often little validity to their accusations. Jones, for example, received two community guideline strikes against his channel after he published videos wherein he alleged that some of the more outspoken survivors of the Parkland school shooting in Florida were crisis actors.
YouTube didn’t issue a community guideline strike because of his views; Jones received the strike because his content violated the company’s guidelines on cyberbullying and harassment. The company’s policies state that creators cannot make “hurtful and negative comments/videos about another person,” which Jones’ videos did. Controversial creators are now seeking out alternative platforms as a way to bypass the company’s guidelines and policies.
The same thing happened when YouTube banned Jones over a combination of hateful content and ban evasion — something companies like YouTube and Twitch take very seriously.
YouTube has every right to remove Jones’ channel. He’s violated the company’s cyberbullying guidelines multiple times in the past.
The only issue, as Slate’s April Glaser writes, isn’t that YouTube, Facebook and Apple are taking action — it’s a matter of when.
One of the great ironies in this mess is that YouTube, Facebook, and Apple are all deciding to enforce community moderation policies against hate speech that they’ve long had on their books. Any one of them could have taken this action years ago. But they didn’t, perhaps fearing that they’d be labeled as censorious liberals executing a political agenda, as if there’s anything particularly partisan about preventing a popular and bigoted fabulist from using your services to spread lies that are leading to real-world harm. They helped Jones exit the fringe and penetrate the mainstream. Now their fear could be realized—they’re being labeled as left-wing tech companies acting out a political agenda by right-wing media critics.
The timing makes it easier for far-right critics to demand compensation for having their First Amendment right stepped on, or accuse Silicon Valley of colluding to censor certain voices, even if that’s not the case. These rules have existed for years. Apple, YouTube and Facebook could have removed Jones’ channel after pervious incidents.
Instead, they defended Jones’ right to appear on the platforms for as long as they could, waiting until one company took the first step. Reprimanding a vocal provocateur required a domino effect. There was no question over First Amendment concerns — the only thing keeping the companies from taking action was bad press and blatant cowardice. As major pillars of the internet wavered over whether to recognize that Jones was consistently breaking their rules, critics took their own action, and pointed it out for them. Teenagers have more courage than YouTube and Facebook executives.
It’s dangerous to hurl around suggestions that First Amendment rights are being infringed on, especially when this situation couldn’t be further from the truth. The message YouTube sent isn’t that voices aren’t welcome, but community guidelines will be enforced.
Don’t publish vile content, and your video will probably be a-ok.