The answer to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube's problems with Infowars? Transparency

Commentary: The only way these companies can fix this mess is to be open and honest with all of us about what's going on. Why is that so hard?

Ian Sherr Contributor and 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. As an editor at large 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
5 min read
A screenshot of Alex Jones speaking in a YouTube video

The Alex Jones Channel is InfoWars' biggest account on YouTube, with 2.2 million subscribers. 

Screenshot by Joan E. Solsman/CNET

It's time to pull back the curtains. Big time.

Over the past two years, the tech industry has found itself in the middle of so many world-changing events, it's hard to keep track. We've seen privacy leaks like the one centered on Cambridge Analytica, Russian interference in our elections, endless harassment, hate speech, the rise of white supremacists and threats of all-out nuclear war, to name just a few.

And yet, we know shockingly little about the decisions that Facebook , Twitter and YouTube make, impacting billions of people every day.

Consider just the past week. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his publication Infowars were largely booted off Apple's iTunes and Podcasts services, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Stitcher, MailChimp and Vimeo, all within a few days.

In each of these cases, the companies cited their community rules or terms of service, which prohibit hate speech and harassment. When I asked which specific posts violated the rules and what rules in particular Jones had run afoul of, Facebook, YouTube, Stitcher, Apple and others either declined to provide details or didn't respond to my request.

All they would say is that Jones and Infowars violated their rules, and that was it.

Many people cheered tech's moves. After all, Jones in particular has accused the families of the 20 first-graders killed in the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 of faking their children's deaths. At least nine families of Sandy Hook victims have now sued Jones and Infowars for defamation. How could that type of speech -- demonstrably false claims that led to harassment of grieving families -- be OK?

Add in that more than half of US adults support tech companies taking steps to restrict false information, "even if it limits the public's freedom to access and publish information," as a Pew Research Center survey found in April. You'd think this is a no-brainer.

Yet, when the big tech companies cut off Infowars account, some people cried foul. This time, because the companies didn't explain the specific reason why. What had changed that week? They refused to say.

That's why I think it's time for Mark Zuckerberg , Jack Dorsey and Susan Wojcicki, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to share with us, publicly and openly, the details every time something's taken down from their sites and why.

When Facebook pulls down a terrorist ad, put information about it in a publicly accessible database so we all know it happened, and what rule it violated.

When Twitter bans an account, like when it shut out the conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos after he inspired a hate mob against the comedian Leslie Jones, put the case file up for all to see.

When YouTube pulls down a video, leave up an image for when people click on the link that not only says the video violated YouTube's policies, but also what part of the video had run afoul of which policy.

I know, a journalist advocating transparency is hardly shocking.

But the truth is that these companies' habits of keeping enforcement teams' work confidential doesn't just leave users in the dark and journalists frustrated. We've now learned it also sends conspiracy theorists into a frenzy, prompting even more destruction in our public discourse.

Being more transparent about what is and isn't OK on these platforms won't solve all these problems. It may even create even more headaches because now the companies will have to publicly back up their decisions. But it'll go a long way toward helping us understand what these companies are doing and quelling people who call them out for being biased in their decision-making.  

To give some credit, Facebook's Zuckerberg is talking to the media slightly more, though his most recent podcast interview with Recode's Kara Swisher set off a firestorm when he defended Holocaust deniers.

Twitter, meanwhile, invited two New York Times reporters into its headquarters last Friday to visit one of the company's policy meetings and chat with Dorsey, though the takeaway seems to be that Twitter continues to wrestle with hard questions and doesn't have easy answers. It's since shared a little more with reporters, such as about Jones' Periscope video that led to his suspension, but that's one instance so far, and an extreme case. (In the video, Jones encouraged viewers to "have their battle rifles" ready amid statements like "mainstream media is the enemy" and "now it's time to act on the enemy.")

It's time for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others to publicly and openly publish information on each enforcement action. Make it available in a database. Make it easily searchable. Let us see what's going on.

Not that hard

Opening up this data doesn't just make sense, it's relatively easy to do. Don't believe me? Facebook and Twitter already share details for political ads on their sites.

Earlier this year, Facebook and Twitter both created transparency centers, where you can browse through all the political ads published on their respective services and find out who paid for them, how much they paid and what people they were targeted at.

Facebook and Twitter did this in part to appease those of us pushing our lawmakers to do something about Russian interference in our elections.

All I want is the next logical step: Do it for everything.

Admittedly, there are challenges. By drawing attention to what social networks pull down and why, trolls and people like Jones could use that information to learn exactly where the line is, and tiptoe that much closer. This is something the Chinese government deals with daily, as internet users there come up with ever more inventive ways to refer to otherwise banned topics when talking on the internet.

"If you reveal what you're looking for, people are going to use it," said Jeff Jarvis, a professor at CUNY's Craig Newmark School of Journalism.

I think the risk is worth the reward. And so did President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, an unprecedented law that opened government records to the public.

"No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest," Johnson said when signing FOIA into law. "The United States is an open society in which the people's right to know is cherished and guarded."

So too, should Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and any other company that relies on us, the users, to power them.

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.