Perhaps the most infamous conspiracy theorist of our time, Alex Jones, was suspended from Facebook for thirty days for violating Facebook’s policies against bullying and hate speech.
Jones is best known for spreading the demonstrably false claim that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged, among other “false flag” conspiracy theories.
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While this may seem like a brief respite from the ridiculous, it’s important to note that this ban only applies to his personal account, and the InfoWars page itself remains active.
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The move by Facebook comes after months of questionable inaction for hate groups while seeming to indiscriminately block and ban non-celebrity types for seemingly senseless reasons. The aSE network of pages on Facebook has been a victim of this in the past, with Facebook almost deleting aSE a little over a year ago:
— dan broadbent 🚀 (@aSciEnthusiast) April 12, 2017
And more recently in February of this year, Facebook deleted our ‘We Believe in Nihilism’ page with around 350,000 followers, with no explanation or justification. (We have since recreated the page.)
When you run a Facebook fan page (a business page or a page like aSE/WBiN), you have to have your personal account attached to it. While there are many apps that allow for automation in publishing content to Facebook, at the end of the day, Facebook still attributes the posts to a user’s personal profile. That means if Facebook decides that a post on your page violates their “community standards,” they remove the post and the personal account attached that it credits as making the post gets hit with an increasing stream of suspensions. These range from a warning for first-time offenders to a 24 hour, 3 day, 7 day, and 30 day ban from posting.
While banned from posting, the page or personal profiles themselves are still visible. The only difference is the owner cannot create new posts, comments, or even react to a post by “liking” it.
The reason the InfoWars page is still chugging away with posts is because the page likely has many, many admins/editors who have posting privileges. This is why even today you could see Jones streaming on the InfoWars page, despite his personal profile being banned.
But as CNET reports, that may not be the case for long:
A Facebook spokesperson said at least one of his channels is close to the threshold that would justify the channels’ Facebook page being permanently removed, though — because each time Jones or his fellow admins receive a strike for publishing violating content, his pages receive a strike as well.
The specific content Facebook removed is unknown at this time. CNN spoke with a representative from Facebook, and reported:
“We received reports related to four different videos on the Pages that Infowars and Alex Jones maintain on Facebook,” the spokesperson said in a statement provided to CNN. “We reviewed the content against our Community Standards and determined that it violates. All four videos have been removed from Facebook.”
It was not immediately clear which videos Facebook removed, but the spokesperson said that the company’s community standards “make it clear that we prohibit content that encourages physical harm [bullying], or attacks someone based on their religious affiliation or gender identity [hate speech].”
This happened a day after YouTube removed four videos by Alex Jones, gave his account a “strike,” and prohibited him from live streaming to the platform for 90 days.
Earlier this month, the news site Channel 4 used undercover filming to show that Facebook will mark profiles of celebrities as “shielded” from having content deleted, even if a “normal” account would have had content removed and/or suspended. This seems counterintuitive to the idea of equity on the platform, but it’s likely they simply didn’t want to deal with potential backlash from a celebrity and/or they didn’t want their automated reporting system to be abused.
The foundation of this issue is regarding people’s right to access distribution networks to spread their information, or in the case of Alex Jones, misinformation. While the First Amendment does not apply to social media websites, they’ve become the main source for the free flow of ideas. So, as you’d expect, Jones is crying censorship and claiming that media firms such as CNN are demanding that his access to Facebook be completely removed. Jones said that CNN was leading a “campaign against competing news organizations and the First Amendment,” which he called “outrageously anti-American.” He demanded that CNN “cease and desist.”
This is an impossible problem with no clear answer. On the one hand, we don’t want companies (especially information distribution networks like Facebook or YouTube) tamping down ideas that are inconsistent with their owners’ own beliefs. But, on the other hand, people like Jones claim that 9/11 was an inside job (it wasn’t) and that Sandy Hook was a “false flag” operation (it wasn’t), all while peddling his own pseudoscientific merchandise. That’s not to mention that Facebook allows Holocaust deniers, white supremacist groups, and Nickelback fans to exist on its platform as well.
Sorry, Nickelback fans. You know what you’ve done.
But seriously – some things are just beyond the pale and so egregious that they surpass anyone’s privilege of being able to have a platform to distribute their information. This includes, but is not limited to, people promoting racial hatred, denying the Holocaust occurred, and inciting violence.
Just this week, Alex Jones broadcasted a rant about Robert Mueller saying “It’s not a joke. It’s not a game. It’s the real world. Politically. You’re going to get it, or I’m going to die trying, bitch. Get ready. We’re going to bang heads,” while miming a gun firing. He also baselessly claimed that Mueller was a pedophile.
This is not government intervention that results in stifling down ideas that the government doesn’t like. This is a company deciding that it’s not going to allow someone whose blatantly false claims have led to actual harm being done, such as someone going to Comet Pizza with a gun because he’s convinced that there’s a sex trafficking operation in their non-existent basement.
Full disclosure: Emily and I decided to investigate Comet Pizza while we were in the DC area back in February, and all we found was some really delicious pizza. I highly recommend it.
I am all for protecting people’s ability to freely share information. The only way to overcome bad ideas is by replacing them with better ones. We’re all very familiar with what happens when an authority figure tries to stamp out a really, really bad ideology using force.
But in the case of Alex Jones, it’s not simply a “battle of ideas.” He’s lying. Things that are not true do not fall under the umbrella of being part of an ideology. They’re just false statements. He’s spreading things that are not true.
When a platform is used by someone in a way to repeatedly spread demonstrably false information and when they repeatedly encourages violence, they forfeit their ability to use that platform. Sites like InfoWars, and people like Alex Jones, have repeatedly done these things and do not deserve to have a voice on these platforms.