Late on Sunday, after returning to his hotel room on a trip away from home, Mark Zuckerberg made a decision he had hoped to avoid.
For weeks, the Facebook chief executive and his colleagues had debated what to do about Infowars, the notorious far-right news site, and Alex Jones, Infowars’ choleric founder, who became famous for his spittle-flecked rants and far-fetched conspiracies, including the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was an elaborate hoax promoted by gun-control supporters.
Mr. Jones is just one Facebook user out of 2.2 billion, but he had become symbolic of tech platforms’ inconsistency and reluctance to engage in a misinformation war.
The pressure on Facebook to do something about him had intensified after executives gave a series of vague and confusing answers to lawmakers and reporters about the company’s policies. Misinformation was allowed to stay on the platform, they said, but hate speech wasn’t. So users dug up and reported old Infowars posts, asking for their removal on the grounds that they glorified violence and contained dehumanizing language against Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people.
These posts clearly violated Facebook’s hate speech rules. And in a normal situation, a low-level content moderator might have reviewed them, found that they qualified, and taken them down.
But Mr. Jones was no typical internet crank. He has millions of followers, a popular video show, and the ear of President Trump — who once told the provocateur that his reputation was “amazing.” Banning such a prominent activist would lead to political blowback, no matter how justified the action was.
The situation was volatile enough that Mr. Zuckerberg got personally engaged, according to two people involved in Facebook’s handling of the accounts. He discussed Infowars at length with other executives, and mused privately about whether Mr. Jones — who once called Mr. Zuckerberg a “genetic-engineered psychopath” in a video — was purposefully trying to get kicked off the platform to gain attention, they said.
Mr. Zuckerberg, an engineer by training and temperament, has always preferred narrow process decisions to broad, subjective judgments. His evaluation of Infowars took the form of a series of technical policy questions. They included whether the mass-reporting of Infowars posts constituted coordinated “brigading,” a tactic common in online harassment campaigns. Executives also debated whether Mr. Jones should receive a “strike” for each post containing hate speech (which would lead to removing his pages as well as the individual posts) or a single, collective strike (which would remove the posts, but leave his pages up).
Late Sunday, Apple — which has often tried to stake out moral high ground on contentious debates — removed Infowars podcasts from iTunes. After seeing the news, Mr. Zuckerberg sent a note to his team confirming his own decision: the strikes against Infowars and Mr. Jones would count individually, and the pages would come down. The announcement arrived at 3 a.m. Pacific time.
In the days that followed, other platforms — YouTube, Pinterest, MailChimp, and more — said they, too, were banning Infowars. The notable exception was Twitter, which decided not to ban the site or Mr. Jones. The company’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, tweeted a veiled shot at the way his rivals handled the situation.
“We’re going to hold Jones to the same standard we hold to every account, not taking one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories,” he said.
Now, cut off from most of his audience, Mr. Jones will have to chart a new course. He has already stepped enthusiastically into a role as a free-speech martyr. (After the ban took effect, Infowars slapped a “censored” label on its videos and launched a “forbidden information” marketing campaign.) And conservatives — and even some free-speech advocates on the left — worried that social media companies may be entering a new, censorious era. Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, paraphrased the famous Martin Niemöller poem about German accommodation of Nazism: “First, they came for Alex Jones.”
Social media executives have a history of going to great lengths to assuage fears of anti-conservative bias, and this week was no exception. On Thursday, Richard Allan, a Facebook vice president of policy, published a blog post about the company’s commitment to free speech. With the exception of violent threats and hate speech, he wrote, “we lean toward free expression. It’s core to both who we are and why we exist.” Mr. Dorsey also appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show, where he gave reassurances that Twitter does not discriminate against conservatives.
Slippery-slope fears about mass censorship by social media platforms are probably overblown. For starters, Infowars presented an unusual case because of its size, the extreme nature of its content and the ferocity of Mr. Jones’s critics. Mr. Zuckerberg does not have time to adjudicate every dispute over hate speech on Facebook, nor does he want to.
In fact, taking action against Infowars could allow social media giants to avoid future conflicts over extreme content by setting a new, hard-to-beat standard for unacceptable toxicity. (“Yes, Jewhater McRacist is bad,” they may say, “but he’s no Alex Jones.”) Many other internet conspiracists have learned how to tiptoe to the edge of platforms’ rules without breaking them — speaking in code about Pizzagate, for example, or saying things like “I’m not saying he’s a crisis actor, but if he were …”
One lesson Mr. Zuckerberg has taken from the Infowars saga, said the people involved in the handling of Mr. Jones’s Facebook accounts, is that the social network’s policies are overly complex and need to be simplified. Privately, company officials have also downplayed the Infowars bans, saying they don’t represent a watershed moment in the online free speech debate, but are rather a matter of how to enforce Facebook’s existing policies.
This is a convenient narrative, of course, from a company that would rather haggle over terms of service than discuss the power and governance of its platform.
There are legitimate questions, still unanswered, about what to do about the huge, unaccountable corporations that control large pieces of our modern communications infrastructure. Both fans and critics of Infowars can probably agree that a system in which one executive can decide to shut off a news organization’s access to a large portion of its audience is hardly ideal.
There are also valid questions about why Infowars got so popular in the first place, and whether attention-maximizing platforms like Facebook and YouTube are designed in way so that people like Mr. Jones are incentivized to push the boundaries of acceptable speech.
After all, these platforms didn’t just host Infowars content for those who were seeking it — they actively promoted it to millions of people for years, through algorithmic feeds and recommendation engines that decide which videos to show you next. Could these platforms be redesigned so that the next Alex Jones never gets that kind of boost, and remains on the ideological fringes?
These questions will have to wait. For now, tech leaders seem satisfied to have dealt with their Infowars problems, at least temporarily. They will return to their defensive crouch, hiding their power behind policies, making small changes under pressure, and hoping that nobody notices the size of their footprints.