Infowars, Alex Jones test the limits of free speech on Twitter and beyond

FAQ: The conspiracy theorist extraordinaire becomes the center of a debate about free speech and the internet. Here's what you need to know.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
7 min read

Alex Jones has a new fight on his hands.

Screenshot by CNET

Alex Jones is going to war with Silicon Valley.

As one of the internet's most controversial personalities, making outlandish claims and spreading conspiracy theories through his Infowars website and broadcast has made Jones a household name in political circles.

Initially, it was for his baseless accusation that 9/11 was an inside job. But in the past several years, he's claimed survivors of a mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school were "crisis actors." (False.) He's said the mass shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary was a hoax. (False.) And he's accused Hillary Clinton of being involved in a child sex trafficking ring. (False.)

Critics have cried foul, saying Jones' particular brand of unproven accusations whip his fans into a frenzy, after which they harass, threaten and intimidate. In one extreme case, the parents of a Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victim told The New York Times they receive so many death threats and harassing messages they've had to relocate hundreds of miles from where their 6-year-old son is buried.

Silicon Valley tech companies, already under the microscope for their mishandling of Russian propaganda designed to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election, were reticent to act. But on Aug. 5, Apple removed five of six podcasts Infowars makes available through iTunes and Apple's Podcast app. Within a day, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and LinkedIn had banned Jones and Infowars as well. And just over a week later, Twitter too suspended Jones from its service

Jones' supporters say the moves are the latest example of tech companies silencing voices they don't agree with. His detractors say it was a long time coming.

Here's everything you need to know.

Who is Alex Jones and what is Infowars?

Jones is the Austin, Texas-based founder of Infowars, a website and media platform that bills itself as "the resistance" and uses the tagline: "There's a war for your mind!"

The company, founded in 1999, has attracted notable fans including Roger Stone, a Republican party strategist who's worked on various presidential campaigns, and President Donald Trump, who has praised Jones for his "amazing" reputation.

Jones is known for his histrionic shows, in which he slams political targets with fiery rhetoric interspersed with advertisements for nutrition supplements and survivalist gear. He's estimated to sell as much as $12.5 million worth of supplements a year, according to New York magazine.

Watch this: Why Alex Jones and Infowars were kicked off YouTube, Facebook, Apple and Spotify

Why does Jones matter to the tech industry?

In some ways, Jones represents the hairiest of issues tech companies face. Facebook, Twitter and Google's YouTube market themselves as bastions of free speech and a new way to communicate.

Their technology helped power the Arab Spring, as well as the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements.

But it turns out that propagandists, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists have also found that these sites can expand their influence and connect their fans. This leads us to Jones, whose Infowars has used YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in particular as services to dramatically expand his reach.

What have tech companies done about Jones until now?

Tech companies have for the most part kept a hands-off approach toward what people post on their sites, with the exception of extreme cases like harassment, child porn, revenge porn and terrorism.

The situation has gotten trickier in the era of Trump, who uses social media to broadcast some of his most controversial statements ranging from threats against other countries to personal insults against women's looks. (Twitter ultimately changed its policies to allow for Trump's tweeting.)

With people like Jones, there's even more of a dilemma. Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has said he doesn't want to be an arbiter of truth and doesn't want to punish people for getting things "wrong." Twitter and YouTube, for their part, have largely chosen to keep their deliberations out of the public eye. (Though Twitter did invite The New York Times into one of its policy meetings with CEO Jack Dorsey during which, tellingly, little was accomplished.)

Isn't the tech industry violating the US Constitution's First Amendment free speech protections?

No. The First Amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That first part means the government can't pass laws limiting your right to speak, but it doesn't say anything about companies or social networks.

Some critics have argued that because of Facebook's massive size -- counting 2.5 billion people who log on to Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp at least once a month -- it shouldn't be up to the company to make such decisions. In effect, they say, Facebook is a town square that should be subject to similar free speech rules. Zuckerberg says he disagrees. In testimony on Capitol Hill in April, he argued that his policing of posts by terrorists and extremists would be impossible if he adopted a First Amendment for Facebook.

But isn't it a slippery slope if we let tech companies start censoring people?

There are many people who appear to agree with this concern, particularly because tech companies haven't been fully transparent about how they make these decisions. Jason Kint, who runs Digital Content Next, a trade group for online news sites, said without a more transparent approach, the companies risk accusations 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."

Isn't this all a ploy for tech companies to censor conservative voices?

So far, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others have insisted they are not censoring conservative voices, but rather taking action against specific people and accounts that violate their anti-harassment and anti-terrorism policies.

That hasn't stopped conservative commentators from criticizing the tech industry over these concerns. Most recently, Trump and lawmakers on Capitol Hill took Facebook to task for seeming to censor a pro-Trump commentary page run by a pair known as Diamond and Silk. Facebook apologized and fixed the issue.

On Aug. 9, Microsoft told Gab.ai, a social network popular among conservatives and the white nationalist "alt-right" movement, that it would force that site off the web if it didn't take down anti-Semitic posts

What specific thing did Infowars do this time?

The tech companies aren't citing specific examples.

Facebook said in its statement, for example, that it reviewed posts on various Infowars pages and chose to take them down "for glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies." 

Apple said it doesn't tolerate hate speech, "and we have clear guidelines that creators and developers must follow to ensure we provide a safe environment for all of our users." In a statement to BuzzFeed news, the company added "Podcasts that violate these guidelines are removed from our directory making them no longer searchable or available for download or streaming."

YouTube, meanwhile, said all users agree to comply with its terms of service and community guidelines when they sign up to use its service. "When users violate these policies repeatedly, like our policies against hate speech and harassment or our terms prohibiting circumvention of our enforcement measures, we terminate their accounts."

MailChimp said "a clear violation has taken place, and as stated in our Terms of Service, MailChimp has the sole authority to terminate this account." But it too didn't offer specifics.

The lack of transparency has drawn attention to the troublesome side of Silicon Valley's secretive ways, and it's something some advocates are arguing needs to change.

So, Facebook, YouTube, Apple, LinkedIn, Spotify and Pinterest have all shut off Infowars. What about Twitter?

In its earlier days, Twitter said it considered itself "the free speech wing of the free speech party." As such, the company has historically been cautious about taking action against users on its service.

After other tech companies cut off access for Jones and Infowars, Twitter said on Aug. 6 it wasn't doing the same because Jones and Infowars aren't currently in violation of Twitter or its Periscope streaming service's rules.

"We know that's hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn't violated our rules," Twitter CEO Dorsey tweeted Aug 7. "We'll enforce if he does."

On Aug. 14, Twitter made good on that threat, and suspended Alex Jones from its service for a week.

Dorsey has acknowledged that Twitter has historically has been "terrible" at explaining enforcement decisions in the past, but assured followers that Jones will be held 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.

"If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that's constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction," Dorsey added. "That's not us."

What does Infowars say?

The company hasn't responded to requests for comment, but on an Aug. 6 livestream, Jones said the move was "cultural imperialism of the San Francisco tech elite."

Which companies have kicked Jones off their services?

FacebookGoogle's YouTubeApple iTunes and Podcast appSpotifyLinkedInPinterest, MailChimp, Stitcher, Vimeo and YouPorn. Twitter suspended Jones for a week on Aug. 15.

Which still allow Jones to use their platform?

Twitter's Periscope, Gab.ai, Facebook's Instagram, Google +, Snapchat, Ustream, Vimeo, Flickr, Disclose.tv, Minds and TuneIn.

It's also worth noting that Google, YouTube and Apple have allowed some Infowars material to remain, such as the company's mobile apps and at least one of its affiliated podcasts.

CNET's Caitlin Petrakovitz, Mark Serrels and Joan E. Solsman contributed to this report.

First published Aug. 7, 5 a.m. PT.
Updates, 12:18 p.m.: Includes MailChimp response; 1:13 p.m.: Adds statements from companies; 6:18 p.m.: Includes Twitter's and Dorsey's comments, and TuneIn update removing Jones from its service; Aug. 9 at 4:33 p.m.: Adds that Microsoft told Gab.ai to remove anti-Semitic posts; Aug. 13 at 3:17 p.m.: Adds that Vimeo has also taken down Infowars' account; Aug. 15 at 5 a.m.: Update to indicate Twitter has suspended Jones from its service.

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