Alex Jones’ fate was decided over the weekend, when Apple CEO Tim Cook and his vice president of software and services, Eddy Cue, met to talk about it. So says Dylan Byers in his daily newsletter, Pacific, which lays out the first reported account of how most of the major tech platforms came to ban the Infowars host on a single day. Byers continues:
Hours after Apple announced its move, Mark Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook made the decision to pull four of Jones’ pages from their platform. Zuckerberg only moved to remove these pages after learning about Apple’s decision, Facebook sources said. That is why the pages were removed at 3 a.m. Pacific Time.
I read Byers’ reporting with interest, because it answered a question I’ve had since waking up to the news of Jones’ banning on Monday. After months of defending his right to spread misinformation, why did Facebook and YouTube decide to ban Jones on the same day?
Brian Feldman, speaking for many of the reporters I follow on Twitter, speculated that the platforms had been scared to act until Apple provided them with air cover:
The reason that every other platform booted Jones is because Apple did it first. The swiftness with which Facebook and YouTube cast out Alex Jones does not indicate responsible moderation, and certainly is not a display of thoughtful moral leadership. These companies didn’t spend months deliberating a course of action and then decided this weekend. They saw Apple make its move, and they dusted off what must have been pre-written statements that had been sitting in someone’s drafts for months. Just a few weeks ago, the official Facebook Twitter account was insisting on “free speech” as the reason the company wouldn’t ban Infowars. What happened to that principled stand?
I understand the appeal of this take. In this view, Facebook is a naive weakling afraid to take any enforcement action on its platform; Apple, on the other hand, is the practical one who never pretended to embrace free speech in the first place.
And yet I wonder whether this view isn’t giving Apple too much credit. Because at the same time that Apple banned Jones’ podcast — possibly giving other tech giants the courage to do the same — Apple left Jones a powerful lifeline, in the form of his iOS app.
Byers reports Cook and Cue “decided to let Jones’ InfoWars app remain available in the app store because they felt it did not run afoul of their policy.” (Google, whose subsidiary YouTube banned Jones on Monday, let the Android version of the Infowars remain in the Google Play Store as well.)
Predictably, Infowars fans have flocked to the app. My colleague Shoshana Wodinsky reports:
Infowars Official, the app named after Alex Jones’ controversial radio talk show, has become the fourth most popular news app in the United States that’s currently available in the iOS App Store, according to public rankings. It was the 47th most popular just two days ago.
The free app, which launched in June, streams live shows and written pieces from Jones and other conservative pundits. It also links to the Infowars store where visitors can buy T-shirts and skincare products. An Android version of the app is available in the Google Play Store; there, it jumped from being the 31st most popular news app to the 11th.
The explanation for Apple’s seemingly contradictory positions here could be obvious. The App Store and its podcast platform have different rules; the podcast platform explicitly bans hate speech, and the App Store (surprisingly) does not. I suspect that will change, possibly quite soon — and when it does, Jones may find himself without a home on iOS.
Still, it seems odd to credit Apple for being the sole company with the conviction to ban Jones when, in fact, it did not. The Infowars app contains live shows with the same hateful conspiracies that could be found on the podcast; Apple simply transferred those users from one platform to another.
And while the narrative that puts Apple in control leans on chronology — platforms only moved to ban Jones after Apple did — I read the chain of events another way. Apple was not the first to take disciplinary action against Jones. YouTube issued its first strike against him earlier this year, then did so again this summer. Facebook followed with a strike of its own. Stitcher was the first to ban Jones’ podcasts from its platform; Spotify followed.
Perhaps Cook and Cue did push these platforms to taking stronger action than they might have otherwise. But I look at these events and see platforms all moving, however tentatively, toward the same conclusion. Each time one acted, it reinforced a related decision by another. Even if Apple might have caused the dam to break, but lots of people — including employees inside tech companies and activists and journalists providing outside pressure — have been chipping away at it for some time.
(I asked Facebook to talk about the chronology of its decision-making, but didn’t hear back.)
Here’s a very funny short piece from my colleague TC Sottek in which he finds that Alex Jones applies the same standards for posting to Infowars that he is mad at tech platforms for applying to him.
Julia Alexander walks the many, many people complaining about the First Amendment and censorship through the reasons why it doesn’t apply here.
Researchers and journalists are asking Facebook to change its terms of service to make new allowances for newsgathering, reports Charlie Savage:
As examples of the kind of journalism research that could be conducted more freely if the rules were changed, the letter cited a Gizmodo projectthat explored how Facebook’s algorithm identifies people users may know and unintended problems; a New York Times article exposing a market in fake followers; a ProPublica investigation about how Facebook’s self-service advertising system enabled discriminatory housing practices; and a Columbia University digital journalism project that scrutinized the reach of Russian disinformation.
Facebook has sometimes instructed journalists or researchers to stop similar projects as a violation of its terms, the letter said, and “the mere possibility of legal action has a significant chilling effect,” prompting some to downsize or abandon projects.
Here Gizmodo takes on the letter described in the previous item. Giz built a tool that people could download to help the site figure out how Facebook’s powerful People You May Know tool works. Facebook has been trying to kill it ever since.
Comprova is a consortium of journalists — the first such group to use the new WhatsApp Business API — that will debunk misinformation leading up to the Brazilian election.
The WhatsApp component is new for election projects facilitated by First Draft, which previously designed CrossCheck, its award-winning collaboration focused on the 2017 French election. The WhatsApp number will accept questions and tips from the public, and will facilitate the detection of trends in misinformation reported around the country. Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School will be investigating how misinformation circulates on WhatsApp in the lead up to the election, and will be testing effective debunks on the platform. The findings will help inform newsroom best practices for requesting tips about misinformation as well as disseminating debunks to the public via WhatsApp.
Some Twitter accounts are so bad that people believe they are bots. In fact they are people who are terrible at Twitter, reports Sara Burnett:
Everyone in the room tweets their own material and also retweets everyone else’s. So a tweet that Tomasieski sends may be seen by her roughly 51,000 followers, but then be retweeted by dozens more people, each of whom may have 50,000 or more followers.
She says she’s learned some tricks to avoid trouble with Twitter. She’s careful not to exceed limits of roughly 100 tweets or retweets an hour. She doesn’t use profanity and she tries to mix up her subjects to appear more human and less bot-like.
This isn’t really a social story but the idea is so audacious I’m making an exception. West Virginia (!) has contracted with a startup named Voatz (!!) to let service members abroad vote using their cell phones (!!!) and is recording their ballots on the blockchain (!!!!). Election security experts are beside themselves, reports Donie O’Sullivan:
“Mobile voting is a horrific idea,” Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told CNN in an email. “It’s internet voting on people’s horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paTper record of the vote.”
Elsewhere in Infowars news, Emma Grey Ellis reports that the current defamation trial against Jones will break new legal ground no matter how it’s decided.
Thus far, Jones’ legal arguments remain embroiled in the nuances of free speech: Specifically, what kind of platform constitutes a serious media institution, and what kind of actions signify a public figure. While it’s hard to sympathize with a man who spent years haranguing the parents of a murdered first grader, in a time when the modes and impacts of speech are being redesigned and renegotiated with every software update and platform policy, these are pressing questions. Whether Jones wins or loses, his suit, according to First Amendment lawyers, will be a building block for the way we think of free speech in the age of the internet.
Snap beat estimates on revenue, but users are leaving — ask Twitter how easy it is to restart growth on a social network once it collapses. Snap investors — welcome, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal! — now have to hope that this turns out to be one hell of a hardware company.
Venmo has dug in its heels on the idea that people should be able to scrape public transactions to make fun of and/or shame its users, which seems like a position unlikely to end well for anyone. (Note the CEO casually throwing his mom under the bus here, too.)
Mr. Schulman, who is 60 years old, said he thinks the younger users who dominate Venmo have a good grasp of what they’re sharing. “If you think about the millennial generation, they really do understand this technology,” he said. “It’s not like my mom trying to figure out what to set these different defaults and share options.”
Here is a charming story from Jamie Lauren Keiles about Personals, an Instagram dating community built for lesbians; bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual women; and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people:
The page, which has over 40,000 followers, works like this: Text-based personal ads are submitted once a month. Ms. Rakowski then publishes them as Instagram posts and tags the people who submitted them. Interested parties can get in touch directly.
Embarrassing for Snap, but seemingly without major consequences.
Greg Sandoval says new security measures are coming to YouTube’s headquarters:
Sources within the city of San Bruno told Business Insider that YouTube plans to upgrade security as part of a planned expansion of the video service’s headquarters. The move comes four months after a woman opened fire with a hand gun on YouTube’s campus.
You can now add multiple job titles to your jobs on LinkedIn, which seems like something that should have been available … at launch??
Sometimes what we dismiss as “angry mobs” on Twitter are actually just examples of critical consensus — and the difference matters, argues Amanda Hess in a sharp piece:
Whether a group is labeled a “mob” often does have more to do with its aims than its tactics. The angry crowds coded as mobs are those whose actions are later condemned by history — the pogroms that murdered Jews in Russia or the lynch mobs of the Jim Crow South. Those whose ideas are eventually adopted and normalized become, in hindsight, revolutionaries.
Mob members are also often styled as an underclass, armed with a peasant laborer’s pitchfork and torch — as though the primal fear is that society’s discontents, a mass of people “beneath” you, will rise up, and not in a spirit of reason, fairness or mercy. Just about everyone, these days, seems eager to claim that underdog status — but there are those who lack institutional power because of discrimination, and then there are those who are kept out of polite society because they are amoral ghouls. The true nature of a mob becomes a lot clearer once you differentiate between the two.
Instead of banning Jones for “hate speech,” a slippery category, ban him instead for libel and slander, argues David French. (Most of this take is just French complaining about conservative figures being labeled as extremists.)
To be sure, this would tie their hands more: Unlike “hate speech,” libel and slander have legal meanings. There is a long history of using libel and slander laws to protect especially private figures from false claims. It’s properly more difficult to use those laws to punish allegations directed at public figures, but even then there are limits on intentionally false factual claims.
It’s a high bar. But it’s a bar that respects the marketplace of ideas, avoids the politically charged battle over ever-shifting norms in language and culture and provides protection for aggrieved parties. Nor do tech companies have to wait for sometimes yearslong legal processes to work themselves out. They can use their greater degree of freedom to conduct their own investigations. Those investigations would rightly be based on concrete legal standards, not wholly subjective measures of offensiveness.
Pete Vernon says the Jones bans represent a turning point for the way that tech platforms see themselves:
Ultimately, the issues raised by Monday’s actions are far more important for what they say about the tech giants’ understanding of their function than what happens to Jones and Infowars going forward. Jones still has a presence on Twitter, an app in the iPhone story, and a website, meaning that he hasn’t been silenced, but his reach has been severely curtailed. The problems of fake news and hate speech that plague the big tech companies aren’t going away, and banning Jones is just the tip of the iceberg. But by (finally) taking action on Monday, they acknowledged that they need to take editorial ownership of their content.
And finally ...
I’ve sending this one to the (many) Infowars fans who have been emailing me today:
“If we allow giant media platforms to single out individual users for harassing the families of murdered kindergarteners, it could lead to a nightmare scenario of measured and well-thought-out public discourse,” said Georgetown law professor Charles F. Abernathy, cautioning that it was sometimes very easy for private organizations to draw a line between constitutionally protected free speech and the slanderous ravings of a bloated lunatic hawking snake oil supplements. “What we see here really could be the beginning of a slippery slope towards a horrific ordeal in which any citizen who violates hate speech policies or blatantly spreads lies that cause other individuals to receive death threats will immediately be discredited and, perhaps, even asked to host their demonstrably false content on a website that they actually own.”
Talk to me
Send me questions, comments, tips, and subject-line-only emails reading, in their entirety, “FREE SPEECH???” firstname.lastname@example.org
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An evening newsletter about Facebook, social networks, and democracy.