Yesterday I asked Apple a simple question: Why did you ban Alex Jones/InfoWars’s podcasts but not the iOS app, which contains the same odious content and clearly defy the company’s own guidelines?
No response from the usually-responsive Apple PR people. Apple gave a generic-sounding statement to BuzzFeed News that doesn’t seem to answer the question:
“We strongly support all points of view being represented on the App Store, as long as the apps are respectful to users with differing opinions, and follow our clear guidelines, ensuring the App Store is a safe marketplace for all. We continue to monitor apps for violations of our guidelines and if we find content that violates our guidelines and is harmful to users we will remove those apps from the store as we have done previously.”
I downloaded the InfoWars iOS app yesterday and used it to listen to Jones’s live broadcast. I then listened to parts of the rebroadcast, which became available in the app soon after the live broadcast was over. For comparison, I then tracked down and listened to one of the Jones/InfoWars podcasts. Like many broadcast personalities, Jones simply repackages his live shows as podcasts. It’s the same content. Why would Apple ban the podcasts but not the app?
The main subject in yesterday’s show was, of course, Big Tech’s merciless gagging of InfoWars, which, we’re told, is the exclusive source of the information that will save democracy. Jones and his cronies (alt-right social media star Mike Cernovich and Trump strategist Roger Stone) have been quick to seize on Jones’s newfound martyrdom, saying the gagging of other “conservative” voices is coming next.
On his show, I heard Jones say the InfoWars app is ranked number one in both the iOS and Android app stores. The app has become much more popular over the past few days as people rush to download it before it’s banned, and it did go from #47 to #3 in the News category at Apple’s app store, and it did rise to the number one “trending” app at the Google Play store, but it wasn’t the number-one app at either store or even the number-one News app at either store.
The point here is not that Jones lies and spreads disinformation. There is no language in the App Store guidelines that squarely addresses that. But there is language that prohibits many of the things Jones routinely does on his show. From Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines: (I included the language that applies to Jones in red. I left out the part of the guidelines that don’t apply to his content. Ellipses indicate that the guideline continues.)
1.1 Objectionable Content
Apps should not include content that is offensive, insensitive, upsetting, intended to disgust, or in exceptionally poor taste. Examples of such content include:
1.1.1 Defamatory, discriminatory, or mean-spirited content, including references or commentary about religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, national/ethnic origin, or other targeted groups, particularly if the app is likely to humiliate, intimidate, or place a targeted individual or group in harm’s way. Professional political satirists and humorists are generally exempt from this requirement.
1.1.2 Realistic portrayals of people or animals being killed, maimed, tortured, or abused, or content that encourages violence . . .
1.1.3 Depictions that encourage illegal or reckless use of weapons and dangerous objects, or facilitate the purchase of firearms.
1.1.5 Inflammatory religious commentary or inaccurate or misleading quotations of religious texts.
1.1.6 False information and features, including inaccurate device data or trick/joke functionality, such as fake location trackers . . .
The decision to ban the InfoWars app is a question of consistency. It doesn’t make sense to ban the Jones podcasts yet leave the app available. One observer suggested that the live broadcasts streamed through the app are fluid and harder for Apple to monitor. That may be true but, as I point out above, the recording of the broadcasts are available immediately after the live show. Another observer pointed out that Jones and his staff may be carefully selecting non-offensive news articles to post to the “News” section of the app to avoid banning. That may be, but Jones’s own words on the broadcasts are enough to justify removal of the app.
Is this about free speech? Unavoidably, yes. Alex Jones and InfoWars are a hard case, because while much of the content is false and offensive, it isn’t so extreme or dangerous (i.e. he doesn’t publish directions for making dirty bombs, or call on his listeners to murder abortion doctors) that concerns over First Amendment rights recede into the background. Jones’s free speech rights are important, because the way InfoWars is treated could affect the way that other edgy political content is treated.
On the other hand we live with a market-based economy. If Apple chooses not to support the InfoWars app on its platform, users are free to access the content from some other source, like the InfoWars website.
You’ll notice in the guidelines above there’s a mention of political satirists and humorists being exempt from some content rules. Some in the Jones camp have suggested that his content falls under those labels. It’s a stretch. There is little humor in Jones’s broadcasts, and when there is it’s lacerated with hate. It’s humor against someone. Is Jones doing satire? Ask the parents of the Sandy Hook shooting victims if it’s satire. Ask them if Jones is “humorous.”
Tim Cook and Apple have worked hard to communicate what the company stands for. It’s not been shy. Why is it suddenly hedging? It seems inconsistent with other Apple stances.
There’s plenty of precedent at Apple for removing apps. It’s banned plenty of fart apps, but somehow truly odious stuff like Jones’s hatred, racism, disinformation, and conspiracy theorizing is left to thrive in the App Store. Please, Apple, do the right thing and ban it.