The Hill: How tech reached a breaking point with Infowars

By Ali Breland and Megan Keller 8/12/18 http://thehill.com/policy/technology/401352-how-tech-reached-a-breaking-point-with-infowars

Tech platforms in recent days have begun cracking down on Infowars, a website that has promoted conspiracy theories, following public pressure.

The website has seen content pulled from numerous social platforms. But the crackdown has also alarmed conservative groups who see it as a concerted effort to silence voices on the right.

Last week, streaming service Spotify pulled some Infowars podcast episodes. On Sunday, Apple went further, announcing it was pulling all of Jones’s podcasts from its platform, citing violations of its policies against hate speech. That opened the door for a wave of other prominent tech companies to act, including most notably Facebook and YouTube.

The crackdown was surprising to many. Infowars has long stoked controversy, routinely pumping out debunked conspiracy theories over the past decade and facing little punishment from platforms on which it shares content.

Liberal watchdogs like Media Matters have regularly drawn critical attention to its claims.

Infowars founder Alex Jones has said the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 was staged. More recently, he claimed students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of another mass shooting, were “crisis actors.”

Questions over Infowars intensified in July during a rare on the record meeting between reporters and Facebook officials.

During the July 11 meeting in New York City, Facebook’s head of news feed John Hegeman and Facebook news feed product manager Sara Su faced a grilling from journalists on why Infowars was allowed to pedal hoax stories.

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy pressed them on Facebook’s vow to stamp out misinformation following Russian interference in the 2016 election. Darcy said Facebook employees were touting their efforts to stop misinformation, but thought that “didn’t really make sense” since pages like Infowars were still on the platform.

According to accounts of the meeting, Hegemen said Facebook would take down violent or hateful speech but would not take down stories that were just “false.”

“I guess just for being false, that doesn’t violate our Community Standards,” he said.

“The Facebook executives struggled to answer the question and [CNN] wrote a story about it,” Darcy said.

Other reporters at the meeting also wrote stories about Facebook’s failure to address Infowars. A story from BuzzFeed News reporter Charlie Warzel was headlined “Facebook Proves It Isn’t Ready to Handle Fake News.”

Darcy also took the fight to Twitter.

“Facebook invited me to an event today where the company aimed to tout its commitment to fighting fake news and misinformation. I asked them why InfoWars is still allowed on the platform. I didn’t get a good answer,” he wrote.

Facebook’s corporate communications team responded.

“We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis – but others call fake news. We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech,” Facebook said in a tweet.

In the following days, Facebook dug in its heels, insisting that posting false information alone did not violate its rules. At one point, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended Holocaust deniers’ right to post misinformation on his platform, a stance he later walked back.

Infowars, though, faced a new round of scrutiny in late July after the families of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting posted an open letter to Zuckerberg. In the letter they discussed how Infowars and Alex Jones had led them to face harassment from strangers and in some cases go into hiding to protect their safety.

The Sandy Hook families have brought a defamation suit against Jones.

After the letter, smaller tech companies such as Spotify and Stitcher announced that they had reviewed Jones’s podcasts and were taking them down. Spotify on Aug. 1 took down some podcasts that violated its content rules, while Stitcher on Aug. 3 took down all of Jones’s podcasts.

On Sunday, Apple took action, removing the full Infowars podcast catalog.

That proved to be a tipping point. Within a day of Apple banning Infowars’ podcasts, Facebook and YouTube reversed course and booted Jones and Infowars from their platforms. Other smaller companies also took action. One notable holdout though has been Twitter.

Warzel, a BuzzFeed tech reporter, who has closely covered internet misinformation, said the controversy over Infowars was part of a larger fight over how tech companies police their platforms.

“The least interesting part of this story is whether or not Alex Jones is banned or not from a specific platform,” he said. “What’s most interesting to me as a reporter is the fact that these big tech companies are wrestling with these decisions in public.”

But the crackdown on Infowars has some worried. Some experts say tech companies may have put themselves in an impossible position.

Harold Furchtgott-Roth, the director of the Center for the Economics of the Internet at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, told The Hill “it’s just technologically very difficult” to consistently regulate speech on open platforms.

Even if companies like Facebook and YouTube could check all the content shared on their sites, Furchtgott-Roth thinks “it’s hopeless” for them to try to come up with a single standard for what content to allow.

Conservative groups see the crackdown as part of a larger threat.

Christie-Lee McNally, the founder of Free Our Internet, a right-wing advocacy group, said the moves against Alex Jones were the beginning of a broad assault on speech with which the left disagreed.

“They’re choosing an agenda and a point of view that they want out there,” McNally said. “And if it doesn’t fit into that point of view then they find a way to call it misinformation.”

That view has also found support from some Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have held hearings on what they allege is bias against conservatives in tech.

For tech companies, though, there will only be more questions about how they handle sites such as Infowars.

Apple and Google Play for example have still not banned Infowars from their app stores. In recent days, the app has soared in popularity as Jones encouraged users to download it to keep accessing content.

Darcy said the issue was whether companies are being consistent in their policies and transparent.

“My objective as a journalist is not to tell these companies how to operate their platforms,” Darcy said. “It’s for them to live up to what they say they’re doing.”