The Internet's Truth vs. Fake News Showdown

The Internet's Truth vs. Fake News Showdown
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This article originally appeared in ECommerce Times on August 10, 2018.


Facebook earlier this week pulled the plug on the official page for Alex Jones, host of Infowars and noted conspiracy theorist. YouTube quickly followed, removing Infowars and Jones’ videos.


“Users enter an agreement with the platforms with expectations that they will be both protected and limited by those standards and policies,” Olson pointed out. “These standards are important, because — unlike network audiences — platform users actively engage with other users through the platform. They aren’t passive viewers. Rules of engagement are therefore necessary, and they should be enforced.”


Facebook’s move followed Apple’s decision to pull five of Infowars’ six podcasts — including the “Alex Jones Show” and “War Room” — from the iTunes and Podcasts apps. Spotify previously had removed several episodes of Jones’ show from its service.


Facebook removed four pages related to Jones and Infowars for “repeated violations” and for “glorifying violence,” as well as for using “dehumanizing language” to describe certain groups of people — including immigrants, transgender individuals and Muslims — in violation of its hate speech policies.


As a result, the Alex Jones Page, the Alex Jones Channel Page, the Infowars Page and the Infowars Nightly News Page were unpublished, while Alex Jones’ personal account was suspended as well.


YouTube said that Jones’ violations of its Terms of Service and Community Guidelines were grounds for termination of his accounts.

About Face(book)

Facebook previously had faced scrutiny over why it allowed Jones to maintain a presence on the social network. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company’s tolerance of Jones was based on “free speech” considerations, in an interview with Recode last month.

However, in the wake of the bans enacted by Spotify and Apple, Facebook did an about-face and pulled the plug.


This isn’t the first time that a controversial figure has been silenced in the media. ABC canceled comedian Roseanne Barr’s eponymous sitcom earlier this year in response to comments she made on Twitter, which were widely viewed as racist. Nearly 50 years ago, CBS canceled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, largely for the duo’s satirical criticism of the Vietnam War.


However, in the case of Barr and the Smothers Brothers, it was network executives who took issue with the entertainers, whereas in the case of Jones it was third-party services that banned his content.


“The platforms are not engaging in censorship or curtailing free speech,” maintained Chris Olson, CEO of The Media Trust, a digital risk management firm.


“In fact, the platforms have helped Alex Jones’ audience grow,” he told the E-Commerce Times.


“Having said that, regardless of the medium — online or print — when rhetoric leads to substantiated real-life harm or harassment, platforms need to enforce rules they’ve set and their users have agreed to,” Olson added.


Pulling the Plug


Jones’ situation differs for other reasons.


“When TV producers decided to cancel the shows of the Smothers Brothers and Roseanne Barr, they were making business decisions involving employees and their impact on the network’s audiences,” said Olson.


At the time CBS — rightly or wrongly — apparently felt the Smothers Brothers’ political leanings, at least as reflected in their increasingly edgy skits, were diverging from those of their traditional audiences. Barr’s tweets this summer created a PR crisis for ABC.


“By contrast, Facebook, YouTube, Apple and Spotify aren’t only making a business decision to please their users — they are in some ways also influencing standards,” suggested Olson.


“The platforms have standards and policies to ensure they are not infringing any laws,” he added.


“Users enter an agreement with the platforms with expectations that they will be both protected and limited by those standards and policies,” Olson pointed out. “These standards are important, because — unlike network audiences — platform users actively engage with other users through the platform. They aren’t passive viewers. Rules of engagement are therefore necessary, and they should be enforced.”


Is It Censorship?


Unlike broadcast TV, which utilizes the public airwaves, the Internet largely remains unregulated, at least in terms of what can be said or posted. Instead of government oversight — such as the FCC monitoring broadcasters for adhering to community standards — it is up to the companies that host content to determine where lines should be drawn.


“With traditional media — newspaper, magazine, television, radio — the advertisers’ also police their own content,” said social media consultant and author Lon Safko.


In the case of Jones, it hasn’t been his political leanings on controversial issues that have cast him in the proverbial crosshairs so much as his rhetoric — and the fact that much of his content, particularly the advancement of conspiracy theories, arguably belongs in the realm of “fake news.”


One notable example led to a lawsuit against Jones, brought by the parents of Noah Pozner, a victim of the Sandy Hook massacre that took place in 2012. Jones has infamously maintained that the shooting was a hoax devised by the government to promote stronger gun controls.


For some, however, the Internet companies’ decisions to ban Jones have raised alarms.


“This is a different symptom of the same disease that we have been discussing: censorship,” Safko told the E-Commerce Times.


“We should be extremely careful before rushing to embrace an Internet that is moderated by private companies by default,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Civil Liberties Director David Greene.


“While high-profile cases of highly offensive content being taken down garner much attention, content moderation continues to silence voices in marginalized communities around the world that struggle to be heard in the first place,” he told the E-Commerce Times.


There is a great deal of other content online that many might find far more offensive than Jones’ diatribes — notably pornography. Facebook, Apple and other mainstream sites don’t host that type of content either.


Still, it hasn’t been driven onto the Dark Web.


“Google nearly made the decision about six months ago to remove all porn sites from their indexing. That would have been a bad decision,” suggested Safko. “If someone wants to see it, they have a right to, and, if they don’t want to see it, they don’t have to.”


Slippery Slope


There is no shortage of people ranting on their digital soapboxes across social media and other sites, so it isn’t clear whether Jones is just the first to face such a widespread ban or if the tech giants will be the ones that determine who should be silenced and whose voices should be heard.


“The ban on Alex Jones shows the slippery slope between managing widespread hoaxes online and censoring popular content,” said Marcus Messner, professor of journalism at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.


“These companies react to the public’s demand to manage the flow of hoaxes and misinformation online, especially on social media,” he told the E-Commerce Times.


“Those in power will inevitably exploit established systems,” warned EFF’s Greene, “and those who actually make the moderation decisions will inevitably make awful mistakes.”


Of course, Alex Jones is not the only person who has been affected by content management efforts. Many other sources of misinformation have been pulled from various sites as well.


However, the Jones ban “raises the issue of what is protected under free speech in the social media space, which we currently allow to be defined by these companies,” said VCU’s Messner.


“Platforms that choose to moderate must be transparent and accountable about their moderation decisions, their decision-making standards must be clear and applied consistently, and they must provide some avenue for meaningful appeal,” said EFF’s Greene.


Not a Free Speech Issue


Jones and others have suggested that the bans against him raise a First Amendment issue, but that is not technically correct. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects against abridgment of free speech by the government. Companies post their own terms of use and guidelines, and they are justified in banning those who violate the rules.


How Facebook and the other tech companies respond to violent or abhorrent rhetoric that might come from entities with a different political leaning no doubt will be scrutinized.


“This situation calls for better guidelines for the fight against so called ‘fake news’ that Internet companies then can apply in a consistent manner,” said Messner.


Otherwise, the divisions in the country could be reflected online as well.


“It’s gotten to the point where the owners of the media turn their outlet into a personal opinion platform,” suggested Safko.


Really a Fake News Issue


What this issue could boil down to is one not of free speech but truthful speech as Internet companies work to combat the spread of fake news or other disinformation. Neither fake news nor purposeful disinformation would be protected by the First Amendment, in any case.


“It’s interesting that the tech giants have been blamed for the spread of fake news and are now being accused of censorship,” observed The Media Trust’s Olson.


If Jones merely had offered his opinions, rather than presenting his content as facts, he might not be treated any differently than the plethora of talking heads who appear on various cable news channels each evening.


Jones utilized Internet services to cultivate a mass following online. Those same services are the ones that have muted him. The question is not so much whether they had the right do so, but whether they were making good business decisions.


“Much of the world is on these platforms, so if people somehow felt alienated, the user numbers would not have exploded over the years,” remarked Olson. “In fact, virtually anyone of any political stripe will find a community in these platforms.”