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Will Tomer

The unintended consequences of censorship in the digital age

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    The removal of radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from several major online platforms has ignited renewed debate about censorship in the digital age.

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    Will Tomer

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Will Tomer

THE BLADE
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Alex Jones, the founder of InfoWars, is a professional charlatan. He peddles nutrition-less dietary supplements and toxic conspiracies.

The recent removal of Mr. Jones’ content from Facebook, YouTube, and Apple products has brought him greater attention, but it has also renewed an important discussion about Internet censorship, including whether Internet information providers should censor the content on their sites.

Read more by Will Tomer

Facebook, YouTube, and Apple are in the private sector and they can, therefore, decide what content appears and does not appear on their respective platforms.

But the discussion about these decisions gets more complicated when you consider how much web traffic revolves around Facebook, YouTube, and Apple, and how their treatment of content influences its accessibility.

The three most visited websites in the world are Google, YouTube (which is owned by Google), and Facebook. At present, Google and Facebook products account for more than 70 percent of all daily web traffic. Apple is far and away the most popular place to find podcasts.

Although Alex Jones continues to have an Internet presence through the InfoWars website and services like Twitter, you can make that the case that being excluded from coverage by Apple, Facebook, and Google has effectively silenced his online voice. As Justin Charity of the Ringer recently wrote: “Facebook is the largest social media platform in the world, and YouTube is the capital of InfoWars viewership. Without Facebook and YouTube, InfoWars doesn’t exist.”

Should Apple, Facebook, or Google censor content? Is it good policy for these companies to suppress objectionable content, even views as hateful as those of Alex Jones?

Many free speech advocates find it hard to support Mr. Jones. His behavior is grotesque and many of his ideas are dangerous.

Many have applauded the removal of Alex Jones from the major digital platforms, but few have considered the broader and unanticipated effects of this form of censorship, and how censoring Alex Jones affects access to other ideas and bodies of information.

The panic about “fake news” — a panic fomented in part by Alex Jonse — became evident after the 2016 election. Many critics claimed that major tech companies had been too lax in allowing false or misleading content. This criticism motivated companies like Facebook and Google to take action

For instance, in April, 2017, Google announced that it was altering its algorithms to combat “fake news.” Google’s Ben Gomes wrote that the company had “adjusted [its] signals” in order to offer more “reliable sources” to users.

Precisely what this means has never been clear, but these adjustments do seem to have had unintended consequences. For example, left-leaning websites like AlterNet and Democracy Now!, both of which maintain detailed editorial practices, soon saw precipitous declines in their search result traffic. AlterNet saw search traffic dip by more than 70 percent, while Democracy Now! experienced a decline of more than 50 percent. A number of other left-leaning websites suffered similarly.

More to the point, however, what happened to AlterNet and Democracy Now! suggests strongly that censoring sites like Alex Jones’ InfoWars is a bad idea, given the uncontrolled scope of its effects.

Facebook, YouTube/​Google, and Apple have each displayed a willingness to censor content when it suits them. These companies have adopted the view that “hate speech” is not free speech, and that their commitments to free speech are limited to statements they find politically and culturally palatable.

It’s obviously distasteful to give someone like Alex Jones license of any sort and, on matters such as the Sandy Hook shootings, to give him a platform is to inflict pain on the families of the victims.

By comparison, the value of protecting the free speech rights of Alex Jones may not be immediately obvious, particularly to people who find his ideas inexcusably vile. But guaranteeing the right to free speech means protecting Alex Jones’ right to make repugnant comments because denying him the right to air his views would threaten the rights of other citizens, including his critics.

This hard truth is one that should be examined anew in the digital age. The digital infrastructure that powers companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google is vast and complicated, so much so that almost any change in policy or practice can have unintended and unanticipated consequences.

While these firms may have been trying to do the “right thing” by ridding someone like Alex Jones from their platforms, it is likely they have also done harm.

The desire to combat “fake news” may come from a good place. But the lesson I take from these efforts is that the companies which wield an outsized influence over the flow of information — companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google — must be much more careful in weighing the consequences, intended or not, of their actions.

The consequences of the decision to censor Alex Jones are not yet clear, but it seems likely that it would have been better if Apple, Facebook, and Google had done nothing at all, if they had allowed the marketplace of ideas to sort out Mr. Jones all on its own.

Contact Will Tomer at wtomer@theblade.com, 419-724-6404, or on Twitter @WillTomer.

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