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Why did Facebook and YouTube need cover from Apple to ban Alex Jones?

Why did Facebook and YouTube need cover from Apple to ban Alex Jones?
[Photo: Flickr user Sean P. Anderson]

The tech sector today appears to have finally turned against Alex Jones and his conspiracy-mongering InfoWars empire, with Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify all now banning content from the show.

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But when it comes to such ethical stances, timing and motivation is often more important than the action itself. Over the weekend Buzzfeed News reported that Apple had removed five of six Jones and Jones-related podcasts from its iTunes and Podcasts apps because they violated its rules on hate speech. Note that Apple didn’t just zap single offending podcasts, but rather the listings for whole podcast titles. YouTube and Facebook had previously deleted individual Jones/InfoWars videos in the past, but never came close to banning the Jones/InfoWars pages and channels full-stop until now.

Why did it take Apple banning Jones to get Facebook and Alphabet/Google/YouTube to take action?

Apple deserves credit for taking action—and it has long proven that it’s not afraid to engage in big-time political and legal battles—though it’s worth noting that it may have had the least to lose from its banning of Jones. The company doesn’t earn its money from social content in the way that Facebook and YouTube do, so it risks less in cracking down on inappropriate content.

Still, and most importantly, Apple appears to have provided cover to Facebook and YouTube to remove Jones and InfoWars pages and channels from their sites. It’s likely that neither Facebook nor YouTube would have 86’d Jones on their own, neither wanting to be the lone target of criticism from the alt-right crowd howling about Jones’s First Amendment rights.

Now, with Apple, Facebook, and Alphabet/Google/YouTube all taking similar action, it appears that the “tech community” is acting together, and that’s how it’s being reported in the press. (Spotify, too, removed specific Jones podcasts from its service last week, but only after Apple took action did the company remove all of Jones’s content.)

Any of these tech giants could have acted alone without cover from Apple. They all have specific language against hate speech in their content rules.

And hate speech language violations may be the best weapon against provocateurs like Jones. Banning a podcast or page or video channel on the grounds that it constitutes hate speech is very different from banning something for containing disinformation. As Facebook has learned with its fight against false news, saying when something crosses the line from mostly-true to mostly-BS is a tough call.

Fortunately for the content police, Jones and his flunkies lace their disinformation with hate, and that has proved to be their undoing.

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