This week, the tech industry reached a uniform—though apparently uncoordinated—decision to ban content from Infowars’ Alex Jones. The popular conspiracy theorist has argued that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy was a hoax and that the FBI engineered the Boston Marathon bombing. But platforms including Facebook and YouTube didn’t ban Jones’s content based on the veracity of his claims.
They did it because Apple did it first.
Apple, on the heels of becoming the first $1 trillion US company, took down Jones’s podcast from iTunes and its podcast app on Sunday night. “Apple does not tolerate hate speech, and we have clear guidelines that creators and developers must follow to ensure we provide a safe environment for all of our users,” the company said in a statement to Buzzfeed News.
Facebook suspended Jones’s personal page last week and YouTube had taken down a number of Jones’s videos in the past. Apple, however, was the first to ban his podcast outright, and given the timing, it’s hard to see YouTube and Facebook’s decisions as anything but opportunistic.
Apple is a very different company than the open platforms of Facebook and YouTube. Apple is more like an editor, proactively choosing each podcast and app it distributes. Meeting its standards is no small task. Its business model is primarily based on selling goods—either digital or physical—directly to the customer. Yes, people can use it to amplify their messages, but only on its exacting terms.
YouTube and Facebook are more like janitors, cleaning up the messes after they happen. Their business models are almost exclusively based on advertising, which incentivizes them to reward engaging content, regardless of its truthfulness. Although they want to clean up their platforms, they also don’t want to limit time spent in their apps.
As recently as last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended Jones’s pages, claiming that he didn’t believe Facebook should be the arbiter of truth. (It also certainly doesn’t want to be held responsible for what’s broadcast on its platforms.) Somehow that changed almost immediately following Apple’s action. “Much of the discussion around Infowars has been related to false news… none of the violations that spurred today’s removals were related to this,” Facebook wrote in a statement. Instead, the company took down Jones’ pages for “violating its community standards.”
Facebook has been able to grow so rapidly precisely because it eschewed the fact-checking function of a traditional media company. But the “open and neutral platform” stance is a myth. Facebook has always taken down content, nudity for example, that violates its community standards.
The problem is what’s considered a violation of the community standards of platforms like Facebook and Youtube is thin and gray. Yesterday’s actions do little, if anything, to sharpen that line. There are no doubt even worse offenders than Jones on Facebook and YouTube, though they also likely have a smaller reach.
After months of defending their stance to leave Infowars content up under the guise of freedom of expression, platforms like Facebook and YouTube have literally reversed course overnight. It was, of course, never their job to defend freedom of expression in the first place. As private companies they can—and do—limit free expression whenever they want.
It’s not exactly clear what changed this week besides the fact that neither company had to act alone.
The decision from Apple gave the other megaplatforms the air cover they needed to take a stand. Still, YouTube and Facebook didn’t take down Jones’s content for misinformation. They took down the content for violating community standards, which will the open the floodgates for criticism from both sides over what content they (won’t) take down next.
Apple was in a much easier position and even it partially punted in its decision: Infowars’ app remains available in the App Store. But Apple can still hide behind its walled garden. Facebook and YouTube have a line that’s apparently been crossed, which they’ll now have to defend.