Infowars, the bonkers, conspiracy-littered website owned by Texas-based diet pill salesman Alex Jones, has for years peddled falsehoods, paranoia and outright lies. A recent gutter-scraping controversy, for example, was in calling the child victims of the Parkland, Florida massacre “crisis actors”.
Clearly, to any sane Internet user, Jones is neither a freedom fighter nor flag-bearer for free speech. He is a shyster, snake oil salesman and barrel-chested carbuncle on the American media landscape (his own lawyer has argued Jones is “playing a character”). Social media giants had, until Sunday, shied away from banning his output. Then Apple wiped five of Infowars‘ six podcasts from iTunes and the Podcasts app. Within a day YouTube, Facebook, Spotify and LinkedIn followed suit (Google+, Snapchat, Instagram and many others still allow Infowars to broadcast).
Twitter has abstained. “We know that’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules,” tweeted founder Jack Dorsey. “We’ll enforce if he does. And we’ll continue to promote a healthy conversational environment by ensuring tweets aren’t artificially amplified.”
“If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction,” Dorsey added. “That’s not us.”
Except: it is. Dorsey may be ready to die on the hill of free speech where Jones and his band of BS-brigands are concerned. He hasn’t been so ready to defend those with smaller reaches on the platform, most of whom are non-white, non-American and non-gender-binary.
Wael Abbas, an Egyptian journalist and human rights activist whose accounts of the 2011 Arab Spring were followed worldwide. His account was axed in December 2017, and has remained off-limits since. Abbas was arrested by Egyptian authorities in May this year, many believe, for exposing abuses committed by the military government of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Just last week Ru Paul’s Drag Race star Aja was suspended from Twitter when they responded to anti-trans abuse by calling somebody a “senseless cow.”
“If there is a slippery slope of platform censorship, it didn’t start with Infowars. It started with the Moroccan atheists, the trans models, the drag performers, the indigenous women…,” tweeted author and activist Jillian York.
By allowing Infowars to prosper for so long on the back of anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQI, anti-immigrant and other abusive content, while suspending these other users, it is, at best, tacitly admitting that it values the free speech of popular, white men over anybody else (earlier case-in-point: Twitter’s slow reaction to alt-right jester Milo Yiannopolous).
Dorsey may be attempting to separate his company from accusations of censorship that have grown louder in conservative circles against social media and Silicon Valley (as private entities, none of these companies’ content-based decisions fall under the aegis of the First Amendment).
But by doing so, he is drawing a line between phonies like Alex Jones, and activists and minority voices for whom social media is an essential shortcut through mainstream politics and culture. This week’s decision may well be a slippery slope. But it’s not Alex Jones’ fall society should be worried about.