Major technology companies including Apple, Facebook and YouTube deleted years of content from conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars platforms over allegations of hate speech, a sudden clampdown that is fueling the growing debate over how big technology companies choose to censor.
The move was unusual for its sweep and speed, suggesting a new assertiveness by technology companies that in the past have worked to avoid alienating conservatives, who often assert that left-leaning Silicon Valley is biased against them. The removals appeared to be prompted by more users flagging Infowars content for policy violations.
Jones' shows long have sparked complaints because of many elaborate and unsupported claims, including that mass shootings, such as the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, may have been staged and that the government orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks. In July, YouTube banned one of his videos from June entitled "How to Prevent Liberalism," which depicts a man shoving a kid to the ground.
But in acting against Jones in recent days, the technology companies cited unspecified violations of their rules against hateful language. Facebook said in a statement Monday it was removing four of Jones' pages "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."
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have long clung to the claim that they are neutral platforms and that they don't want to be in the business of deciding what is true or false. The action echoed the abrupt removal of the accounts of some white supremacists a year ago, a few days after the far-right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. But companies are increasingly willing to limit free speech, after the backlash from Charlottesville and Russian manipulation.
The recent actions by the technology companies also highlight the opaque nature of their decision-making, with most not publicly specifying what content by Jones violated their policies or how they decided what posts to block and which to leave online. Jones has treaded close to some definitions of hate speech for years, and it wasn't clear from the companies if or when he finally crossed the line.
Both Facebook and YouTube said that Jones had posted new objectionable content over the weekend that influenced their decision to take the content down.
YouTube said in a statement, "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."
"Apple does not 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," Apple said in a statement. "We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions."
The actions came in a cascade, starting with Spotify removing some podcasts last week. Then, late Sunday, Apple removed the majority of Jones' podcasts from iTunes and its podcast apps. On Monday morning, Facebook followed by blocking four of Jones's pages, and then YouTube deleted his Infowars page, with 2.4 million followers. Both companies had already temporarily suspended InfoWars since late July.
The backlash was swift, with Jones saying in a text message to The Washington Post Monday morning that the removal of his shows amounted to an assault against "the First Amendment in this country as we know it." He blamed China, Democrats, "establishment" Republicans and mainstream news organizations for seeking to mount a "counter-strike against the global awakening."
He warned, "You sold the country out, and now you're going to pay for it."
Some rallied to his side, including those who do not ordinarily support Jones but expressed worry about the power Silicon Valley has rapidly developed to squelch unpopular voices without formal due process or alternatives that are capable of commanding similarly large audiences.
Legal experts said the issues raised by the companies' actions are complex.
"While private platforms aren't bound by the restrictions of the First Amendment -- generally only the government is -- there's a question about how much discretion they should choose to exercise over what speech they allow to flow through them," said Jonathan Zittrain, faculty director of Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. "That question can't be wisely answered without noting how unfortunately central just a few intermediaries are -- like Apple for podcasts, or YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for videos and links."
But technology has also enabled the rise of such polarizing personalities as Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, who may have struggled to develop large audiences in an era before widespread adoption of social media.
Conservatives have expressed particular fear about the power of technology companies, arguing that the predominantly liberal workforce in Silicon Valley and other industry centers such as Seattle puts them at a disadvantage in the battle for ideas in crucial online spheres.
"Conservatives are increasingly concerned that InfoWars is not the end point for those who want to ban speech. It's just the beginning," said Brent Bozell, President of the conservative Media Research Center based in Reston, Virginia. "I don't support Alex Jones and what InfoWars produces. He's not a conservative. However, banning him and his outlet is wrong. It's not just a slippery slope, it's a dangerous cliff that these social media companies are jumping off."
Twitter stood out Monday as the one of the few social media platforms to not take action against Jones. Twitter has come under particular attack from conservatives who claimed that the company is targeting them as its seeks to weed out fake accounts and automated bot networks. Twitter declined to comment.
Jones, 44, heads what amounts to a sprawling conspiracy theory empire from his base in Austin, Texas, home to The Alex Jones Show, and a variety of Infowars online platforms. That includes a website, Infowars.com, not affected by the actions of recent days.
Jones gained influence in recent years through his support of President Donald Trump, but he also has drawn intense criticism for spreading provocative theories without providing evidence to support them. He claimed that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was "completely fake with actors" and now faces defamation lawsuits brought by some of the families whose children were killed there.
He also promoted the false conspiracy theory known as "Pizzagate," involving allegations of a child sex-abuse ring tied to Democratic party officials, eventually prompting a man to fire an AR-15 rifle inside of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. YouTube sanctioned Jones earlier this year for raising questions about whether the teen survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting were actors, but didn't delete his channels.
Technology companies have faced growing public pressure since July 18, when Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, speaking on the tech podcast Recode Decode, defended his company's decision to leave Jones' content up. "The approach that we've taken to false news is not to say, you can't say something wrong on the internet," he said. "I think that that would be too extreme." Zuckerberg then drew a parallel to Holocaust deniers, saying that they weren't "intentionally getting it wrong."
Since then, Silicon Valley companies have received a flood new of reports from users who flagged Jones' content as hate speech, according to people familiar with the companies' deliberations. On July 24, YouTube issued a 90-day strike against Jones for videos that the company said included hate speech against Muslims and transgender people. Facebook followed suit and issued a 30-day ban.
"You are starting to see these platforms act as a coherent field," said Daniel Kreiss, a professor at the school of media and journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They are likely all having similar internal debates and watching what each other are doing. There is safety in numbers in that."
After Jones' video channels were banned, he turned to Twitter to direct fans to his podcasts, which were distributed on iTunes, Spotify, and the podcast distribution company Stitcher. Spotify and Stitcher combed through their archive of podcasts and moved last week to ban some.
Sleeping Giants, a social-media activist group that has pressed tech companies to enforce policies on abusive content, praised Apple's move. "Last week, we asked @Apple how the harassment of Sandy Hook parents and Vegas shooting victims didn't violate their Terms of Service. Tonight, they decided that it did. Massive kudos to @Apple for doing what most tech companies have so far refused to do," the group said in a tweet late Sunday.
Some at the tech companies said it appeared felt as if Jones was purposefully trying to test the companies and their policies, by walking right up to a line that they haven't quite made clear, according to three people familiar with deliberations. Executives defend the decision not to share exactly what content violated a policy because they fear it will prompt people to test it.
Sleeping Giants criticized other tech platforms including Facebook and YouTube for announcing their latest moved against Jones only after Apple did. "To say they're now 'silencing voices' is to ignore the fact that they allowed them to be amplified in the first place," the organization tweeted on Monday.
This article was written by Craig Timberg, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Hamza Shaban, reporters for The Washington Post.