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Apple, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify ban Infowars, touching off censorship debate

Alex Jones and his supporters say the conspiracy theorist is being suppressed.

Alex Jones gestures with his hands at his broadcast desk.

Alex Jones blasted tech companies for removing Infowars from their platforms Monday in a live stream on Twitter's Periscope service. 

Screenshot by Joan E. Solsman/CNET

In a move presaged by weeks of mounting pressure,  Apple, Facebook, Google's YouTube and Spotify cracked down on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars media empire, removing wide swathes of content or terminating his accounts entirely. All the actions seemed to happen within 24 hours. 

Was it a long-overdue crackdown or a conspiracy of censorship? That depends on who you ask. The truth -- wait, does that still exist? -- is probably neither. But in a hyper-divisive era, the opaque manner that tech companies enforce their community standards leaves them open to being villainized by both sides, even those straining at opposite ends of a political tug-of-war.

Jason Kint, who runs Digital Content Next, a trade group for online news publications, said the removal was welcomed, if it was prompted by actual violations of the tech giant's standards. But without a more transparent approach, the companies risk being accused of censorship.

"We still want them to be very cautious about anything that is close to censorship," Kint said. "Being crystal clear about their policies and how this is a violation of their policies would be helpful."

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Jones has been widely criticized for promoting untrue, virulent hypotheses about tragic events, including the 2001 terrorist attacks on World Trade Center that killed nearly 3,000 people and the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. 

Jones and his backers were quick to call the removals a coordinated attempt to suppress them. 

"Authoritarian tech titans Facebook, YouTube, and Apple banned us from their platforms on the same day in a coordinated communist-style crackdown," Jones' Infowars.com said in a report leading its website. Nigel Farage, a right-wing populist politician in the UK, tweeted it was a "collusion by the big tech giants." In a tweet, Wikileaks compared the tech companies to the dark side of Star Wars. 

Indeed, an argument could be made that this could end up benefiting Jones thanks to the increased awareness. The InfoWars app, for instance, is still the fourth-most popular free app in the App Store's news category. And while the different platforms have shut Jones down, people can still go visit his site. 

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InfoWars is the fourth-most popular app in the App Store. 

Screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

On the flip side, "this was not about right or left, but right and wrong," tweeted Sleeping Giants, a group for social media activists. "Alex Jones never should've been allowed to get this far spreading hate," said Shaun King, a popular columnist who writes about race and justice issues. 

On Sunday, Apple said five of the six podcasts Infowars creates were no longer available for download or streaming, including the daily Alex Jones Show podcast. 

Spotify, which had begun selectively removing podcasts linked to Jones late last week, expanded the removals to all podcasts, the company said in a statement on Monday.

Facebook said in a blog post Monday that it removed the Alex Jones Channel Page, the Alex Jones Page, the Infowars Page and the Infowars Nightly News Page. 

And on YouTube, Infowars biggest channel -- The Alex Jones Channel with 2.4 million subscribers -- was erased Monday and replaced with the message "this account has been terminated for violating YouTube's Community Guidelines."

Separately, Pinterest and LinkedIn pulled down the Infowars account Monday, but the conspiracy theorist's posts were still available on Instagram and Twitter.

First published Aug 6 at 11:42 a.m. PT.
Update, 3:13 p.m. PT and 10:19 p.m. PT: Adds responses from other social networks.

Update, Aug. 7 at 5:20 a.m. PT: To include additional background. 

Infowars and Silicon Valley: Everything you need to know about the tech industry's free speech debate.

iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.