For more than a decade, tech companies have built massive social media platforms on a simple principle: Take the power of publishing that was long reserved for traditional outlets like newspapers and television stations, and give it to everyone, without censorship.
But that era of idealism appears to be over, as some of Silicon Valley’s titans acknowledge that their services have become breeding grounds for foreign espionage, white nationalism and conspiracy mongering. Reluctantly, the companies have taken on a 20th-century role: gatekeeping.
On Monday, Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify kicked prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his popular Infowars outlet off their services after years of mounting public pressure for the media giants to take more responsibility for the content that appears on their wide-open platforms.
Since the 2016 election of President Trump, tech companies have responded to lawmakers and activists, and taken steps to identify and remove accounts linked to white nationalists who grew emboldened by Trump’s campaign and Russian hackers who federal officials say aided his election.
But the move against Jones — a Trump supporter whose impassioned paranoia has drawn millions of followers — marks a clear escalation in Silicon Valley’s attempt to clean up its mess.
Facebook said in a statement that it took down four Jones-related pages not for spreading “fake news” through conspiracy theories but for “repeated violations” for “glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies.”
YouTube explained its action in similar, if more legalistic, terms.
“All users agree to comply with our Terms of Service and Community Guidelines when they sign up to use YouTube,” a spokesman for the service said in a statement. “When users violate these policies repeatedly, like our policies against hate speech and harassment or our terms prohibiting circumvention of our enforcement measures, we terminate their accounts.”
But to Jones and his supporters, there was another way to describe what had just happened to him: liberal censorship.
“Now, who will stand against Tyranny and who will stand for free speech?” Jones wrote on Twitter, which has said he has not broken any of its rules and can remain on its service. “We’re all Alex Jones now.”
Jones has been a controversial figure for decades, and few personalities have benefited more from the way that Silicon Valley has shifted publishing power from traditional media into the hands of everyday Americans.
Part ringmaster and part libertarian activist, Jones is known for animated tirades alleging that the Federal Emergency Management Agency wanted to put Americans into concentration camps; that the 2015 “Jade Helm” military exercises in Texas were actually preparations for the “Homeland Eradication of Local Militants”; and, most notoriously, that the 2012 Newtown, Conn., mass shooting at an elementary school was an elaborate hoax.
His claims have drawn multiple defamation lawsuits, including some from the parents of victims at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, who say they have been harassed by “truthers” suggesting the massacre never happened and that the families are feigning their grief.
But Jones’ following on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter only grew, particularly among the right wing.
In 2015, he interviewed then-candidate Trump on Infowars during which Trump praised Jones’ “amazing reputation,” and Jones responded that “my audience, 90% of them, they support you.”
Trump consultant Roger Stone later received his own program under the Infowars banner.
After Trump ascended to the White House, it became harder to dismiss Jones as a fringe figure. With nearly 2.5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, he was competing with, and in some cases surpassing, the mainstream news outlets that had previously ignored him.
The sudden bans signal that the political winds have shifted for tech companies that for years had profited from Jones’ presence on their services.
“The platforms have to do a far better job of detecting hateful conduct proactively and taking it down conclusively and quickly,” said Dipayan Ghosh, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center and a former privacy and public policy advisor at Facebook. “The integrity of our political system will continue to be at risk if they do not.”
The democratizing of media is “not necessarily a bad thing,” but “something has gone horribly wrong” when figures like Jones and Richard Spencer — one of the nation’s most prominent white nationalists — gain prominent followings on the platforms, Ghosh said.
Tech companies are perfectly within their rights to kick Jones and others off their platforms, said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a partner at Gibson Dunn who frequently litigates 1st Amendment cases on behalf of an array of media organizations and technology companies.
“These are private companies that are not governed by the 1st Amendment or restricted by those free speech principles,” Boutrous said. “They can enforce their terms of service to banish those who violate their contractual terms.”
Federal law generally protects social-media platforms such as Facebook from legal exposure in the types of defamation lawsuits Jones has faced, Boutrous said.
“As long as they have a process and system that includes terms and conditions and terms of usage that are reasonable and rational, they’re not liable for the defamatory statements of people who come on and post,” Boutrous said. “They have every right to say ‘get off our platform,’ and that’s what they’re doing.”
In explaining Twitter’s decision not to cancel Jones’ account, a representative for the company suggested other Twitter users were keeping Jones in check in his replies by fact-checking him.
For the social media companies, cracking down on Jones carries risks of alienating his many followers who remain on the platforms.
Jones may be the most prominent conspiracy theorist in the media, but he is far from the only one online. It is unclear whether the companies will target other users who share similar views — which would be a massive undertaking, even for a company as large as Facebook.
Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a former Facebook product manager and author who considers himself a “free-speech absolutist,” said the company “was probably right to ban him” for outrageous speech.
Although banning Jones certainly limits his ability to reach his massive audience and to spread new conspiracy theories, it doesn’t do much to address the conspiracy theories that are already circulating among the public, Garcia-Martinez said. He cited the popularity of “QAnon,” a convoluted new theory alleging that Trump’s enemies will all be arrested.
“You ban the author of nonsense, but [Facebook] isn’t going to censor the nonsense (one assumes), so does it matter?” Garcia-Martinez wrote. “I guess the answer is probably no.”
The parents of Sandy Hook victims welcomed the bans but wish they had come sooner.
“News outlets and social media platforms are finally waking up to the critical difference between those who foster a marketplace of freely exchanged ideas and those that peddle false facts to make money off the suffering of others,” said Josh Koskoff, an attorney who represents several families suing Jones. “Unfortunately, for many of the Sandy Hook families, the damage has already been done.”
Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.