Apple crushed Alex Jones — then tossed him a lifeline

Alex Jones’ fate was decided over the weekend, when Apple CEO Tim Cook and his vice president of software and services, Eddy Cue, met to talk about it. So says Dylan Byers in his daily newsletter, Pacific, which lays out the first reported account of how most of the major tech platforms came to ban the Infowars host on a single day. Byers continues:

Hours after Apple announced its move, Mark Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook made the decision to pull four of Jones’ pages from their platform. Zuckerberg only moved to remove these pages after learning about Apple’s decision, Facebook sources said. That is why the pages were removed at 3 a.m. Pacific Time.

I read Byers’ reporting with interest, because it answered a question I’ve had since waking up to the news of Jones’ banning on Monday. After months of defending his right to spread misinformation, why did Facebook and YouTube decide to ban Jones on the same day?

Brian Feldman, speaking for many of the reporters I follow on Twitter, speculated that the platforms had been scared to act until Apple provided them with air cover:

The reason that every other platform booted Jones is because Apple did it first. The swiftness with which Facebook and YouTube cast out Alex Jones does not indicate responsible moderation, and certainly is not a display of thoughtful moral leadership. These companies didn’t spend months deliberating a course of action and then decided this weekend. They saw Apple make its move, and they dusted off what must have been pre-written statements that had been sitting in someone’s drafts for months. Just a few weeks ago, the official Facebook Twitter account was insisting on “free speech” as the reason the company wouldn’t ban Infowars. What happened to that principled stand?

I understand the appeal of this take. In this view, Facebook is a naive weakling afraid to take any enforcement action on its platform; Apple, on the other hand, is the practical one who never pretended to embrace free speech in the first place.

And yet I wonder whether this view isn’t giving Apple too much credit. Because at the same time that Apple banned Jones’ podcast — possibly giving other tech giants the courage to do the same — Apple left Jones a powerful lifeline, in the form of his iOS app.

Byers reports Cook and Cue “decided to let Jones’ InfoWars app remain available in the app store because they felt it did not run afoul of their policy.” (Google, whose subsidiary YouTube banned Jones on Monday, let the Android version of the Infowars remain in the Google Play Store as well.)

Predictably, Infowars fans have flocked to the app. My colleague Shoshana Wodinsky reports:

Infowars Official, the app named after Alex Jones’ controversial radio talk show, has become the fourth most popular news app in the United States that’s currently available in the iOS App Store, according to public rankings. It was the 47th most popular just two days ago.

The free app, which launched in June, streams live shows and written pieces from Jones and other conservative pundits. It also links to the Infowars store where visitors can buy T-shirts and skincare products. An Android version of the app is available in the Google Play Store; there, it jumped from being the 31st most popular news app to the 11th.

The explanation for Apple’s seemingly contradictory positions here could be obvious. The App Store and its podcast platform have different rules; the podcast platform explicitly bans hate speech, and the App Store (surprisingly) does not. I suspect that will change, possibly quite soon — and when it does, Jones may find himself without a home on iOS.

Still, it seems odd to credit Apple for being the sole company with the conviction to ban Jones when, in fact, it did not. The Infowars app contains live shows with the same hateful conspiracies that could be found on the podcast; Apple simply transferred those users from one platform to another.

And while the narrative that puts Apple in control leans on chronology — platforms only moved to ban Jones after Apple did — I read the chain of events another way. Apple was not the first to take disciplinary action against Jones. YouTube issued its first strike against him earlier this year, then did so again this summer. Facebook followed with a strike of its own. Stitcher was the first to ban Jones’ podcasts from its platform; Spotify followed.

Perhaps Cook and Cue did push these platforms to taking stronger action than they might have otherwise. But I look at these events and see platforms all moving, however tentatively, toward the same conclusion. Each time one acted, it reinforced a related decision by another. Even if Apple might have caused the dam to break, but lots of people — including employees inside tech companies and activists and journalists providing outside pressure — have been chipping away at it for some time.

(I asked Facebook to talk about the chronology of its decision-making, but didn’t hear back.)

Democracy

Infowars passionately defends the right to censor Infowars

Here’s a very funny short piece from my colleague TC Sottek in which he finds that Alex Jones applies the same standards for posting to Infowars that he is mad at tech platforms for applying to him.

YouTube isn’t censoring Alex Jones’ freedom of speech with guidelines

Julia Alexander walks the many, many people complaining about the First Amendment and censorship through the reasons why it doesn’t apply here.

Facebook Is Asked to Change Rules for Journalists and Scholars

Researchers and journalists are asking Facebook to change its terms of service to make new allowances for newsgathering, reports Charlie Savage:

As examples of the kind of journalism research that could be conducted more freely if the rules were changed, the letter cited a Gizmodo projectthat explored how Facebook’s algorithm identifies people users may know and unintended problems; a New York Times article exposing a market in fake followers; a ProPublica investigation about how Facebook’s self-service advertising system enabled discriminatory housing practices; and a Columbia University digital journalism project that scrutinized the reach of Russian disinformation.

Facebook has sometimes instructed journalists or researchers to stop similar projects as a violation of its terms, the letter said, and “the mere possibility of legal action has a significant chilling effect,” prompting some to downsize or abandon projects.

Facebook Wanted Us to Kill This Investigative Tool

Here Gizmodo takes on the letter described in the previous item. Giz built a tool that people could download to help the site figure out how Facebook’s powerful People You May Know tool works. Facebook has been trying to kill it ever since.

Journalism Project Comprova Begins to Publish in BrazilJournalism Project Comprova Begins to Publish in Brazil

Comprova is a consortium of journalists — the first such group to use the new WhatsApp Business API — that will debunk misinformation leading up to the Brazilian election.

The WhatsApp component is new for election projects facilitated by First Draft, which previously designed CrossCheck, its award-winning collaboration focused on the 2017 French election. The WhatsApp number will accept questions and tips from the public, and will facilitate the detection of trends in misinformation reported around the country. Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School will be investigating how misinformation circulates on WhatsApp in the lead up to the election, and will be testing effective debunks on the platform. The findings will help inform newsroom best practices for requesting tips about misinformation as well as disseminating debunks to the public via WhatsApp.

Crackdown on ‘bots’ sweeps up people who tweet often

Some Twitter accounts are so bad that people believe they are bots. In fact they are people who are terrible at Twitter, reports Sara Burnett:

Everyone in the room tweets their own material and also retweets everyone else’s. So a tweet that Tomasieski sends may be seen by her roughly 51,000 followers, but then be retweeted by dozens more people, each of whom may have 50,000 or more followers.

She says she’s learned some tricks to avoid trouble with Twitter. She’s careful not to exceed limits of roughly 100 tweets or retweets an hour. She doesn’t use profanity and she tries to mix up her subjects to appear more human and less bot-like.

West Virginia to introduce mobile phone voting for midterm elections

This isn’t really a social story but the idea is so audacious I’m making an exception. West Virginia (!) has contracted with a startup named Voatz (!!) to let service members abroad vote using their cell phones (!!!) and is recording their ballots on the blockchain (!!!!). Election security experts are beside themselves, reports Donie O’Sullivan:

“Mobile voting is a horrific idea,” Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told CNN in an email. “It’s internet voting on people’s horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paTper record of the vote.”

Elsewhere

The Alex Jones Lawsuit Will Redefine Free Speech, Win or Lose

Elsewhere in Infowars news, Emma Grey Ellis reports that the current defamation trial against Jones will break new legal ground no matter how it’s decided.

Thus far, Jones’ legal arguments remain embroiled in the nuances of free speech: Specifically, what kind of platform constitutes a serious media institution, and what kind of actions signify a public figure. While it’s hard to sympathize with a man who spent years haranguing the parents of a murdered first grader, in a time when the modes and impacts of speech are being redesigned and renegotiated with every software update and platform policy, these are pressing questions. Whether Jones wins or loses, his suit, according to First Amendment lawyers, will be a building block for the way we think of free speech in the age of the internet.

Snapchat’s redesign cost it millions of users

Snap beat estimates on revenue, but users are leaving — ask Twitter how easy it is to restart growth on a social network once it collapses. Snap investors — welcome, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal! — now have to hope that this turns out to be one hell of a hardware company.

Drug Deals and Breakups: Venmo Social Feed Rankles Privacy Advocates

Venmo has dug in its heels on the idea that people should be able to scrape public transactions to make fun of and/or shame its users, which seems like a position unlikely to end well for anyone. (Note the CEO casually throwing his mom under the bus here, too.)

Mr. Schulman, who is 60 years old, said he thinks the younger users who dominate Venmo have a good grasp of what they’re sharing. “If you think about the millennial generation, they really do understand this technology,” he said. “It’s not like my mom trying to figure out what to set these different defaults and share options.”

The Future Is … Personal Ads?

Here is a charming story from Jamie Lauren Keiles about Personals, an Instagram dating community built for lesbians; bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual women; and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people:

The page, which has over 40,000 followers, works like this: Text-based personal ads are submitted once a month. Ms. Rakowski then publishes them as Instagram posts and tags the people who submitted them. Interested parties can get in touch directly.

Snapchat Source Code Leaked and Posted to GitHub

Embarrassing for Snap, but seemingly without major consequences.

YouTube spoke to San Bruno officials about improving security at HQ

Greg Sandoval says new security measures are coming to YouTube’s headquarters:

Sources within the city of San Bruno told Business Insider that YouTube plans to upgrade security as part of a planned expansion of the video service’s headquarters. The move comes four months after a woman opened fire with a hand gun on YouTube’s campus.

Launches

Make Your Experience Stand Out with the New LinkedIn Experience Design

You can now add multiple job titles to your jobs on LinkedIn, which seems like something that should have been available … at launch??

Takes

Some Online ‘Mobs’ Are Vicious. Others Are Perfectly Rational.

Sometimes what we dismiss as “angry mobs” on Twitter are actually just examples of critical consensus — and the difference matters, argues Amanda Hess in a sharp piece:

Whether a group is labeled a “mob” often does have more to do with its aims than its tactics. The angry crowds coded as mobs are those whose actions are later condemned by history — the pogroms that murdered Jews in Russia or the lynch mobs of the Jim Crow South. Those whose ideas are eventually adopted and normalized become, in hindsight, revolutionaries.

Mob members are also often styled as an underclass, armed with a peasant laborer’s pitchfork and torch — as though the primal fear is that society’s discontents, a mass of people “beneath” you, will rise up, and not in a spirit of reason, fairness or mercy. Just about everyone, these days, seems eager to claim that underdog status — but there are those who lack institutional power because of discrimination, and then there are those who are kept out of polite society because they are amoral ghouls. The true nature of a mob becomes a lot clearer once you differentiate between the two.

A Better Way to Ban Alex Jones

Instead of banning Jones for “hate speech,” a slippery category, ban him instead for libel and slander, argues David French. (Most of this take is just French complaining about conservative figures being labeled as extremists.)

To be sure, this would tie their hands more: Unlike “hate speech,” libel and slander have legal meanings. There is a long history of using libel and slander laws to protect especially private figures from false claims. It’s properly more difficult to use those laws to punish allegations directed at public figures, but even then there are limits on intentionally false factual claims.

It’s a high bar. But it’s a bar that respects the marketplace of ideas, avoids the politically charged battle over ever-shifting norms in language and culture and provides protection for aggrieved parties. Nor do tech companies have to wait for sometimes yearslong legal processes to work themselves out. They can use their greater degree of freedom to conduct their own investigations. Those investigations would rightly be based on concrete legal standards, not wholly subjective measures of offensiveness.

Alex Jones forces tech giants to act like media companies

Pete Vernon says the Jones bans represent a turning point for the way that tech platforms see themselves:

Ultimately, the issues raised by Monday’s actions are far more important for what they say about the tech giants’ understanding of their function than what happens to Jones and Infowars going forward. Jones still has a presence on Twitter, an app in the iPhone story, and a website, meaning that he hasn’t been silenced, but his reach has been severely curtailed. The problems of fake news and hate speech that plague the big tech companies aren’t going away, and banning Jones is just the tip of the iceberg. But by (finally) taking action on Monday, they acknowledged that they need to take editorial ownership of their content.

And finally …

First Amendment Experts Warn Facebook Banning InfoWars Could Set Completely Reasonable Precedent For Free Speech

I’ve sending this one to the (many) Infowars fans who have been emailing me today:

“If we allow giant media platforms to single out individual users for harassing the families of murdered kindergarteners, it could lead to a nightmare scenario of measured and well-thought-out public discourse,” said Georgetown law professor Charles F. Abernathy, cautioning that it was sometimes very easy for private organizations to draw a line between constitutionally protected free speech and the slanderous ravings of a bloated lunatic hawking snake oil supplements. “What we see here really could be the beginning of a slippery slope towards a horrific ordeal in which any citizen who violates hate speech policies or blatantly spreads lies that cause other individuals to receive death threats will immediately be discredited and, perhaps, even asked to host their demonstrably false content on a website that they actually own.”

Talk to me

Send me questions, comments, tips, and subject-line-only emails reading, in their entirety, “FREE SPEECH???” casey@theverge.com

How Alex Jones lost his info war

On Monday, the bottom dropped out for Alex Jones. After a series of tepid disciplinary actions, which the Infowars host evaded with ease, three of the biggest tech platforms acted in near-unison beginning late Sunday night. And the result is that one of the popular conspiracy performers on the internet has found his reach dramatically reduced.

The great de-platforming of Alex Jones began last week, when Spotifyand Stitcher removed Infowars podcasts from their respective networks. (Spotify initially removed a handful of episodes before removing whole shows.) On Sunday night, Apple followed suit, removing his podcast from iTunes for violating its rules against hate speech.

Apple’s move was followed almost immediately by a rash of similar moves. Facebook removed Jones’ pages, citing repeated hate speech violations. YouTube followed suit, terminating an account that had 2.4 million subscribers. Pinterest came next.

By the day’s end, Infowars had three major digital platforms left at their disposal: the open web, Twitter, and its native apps for Android and iOS. Jones lambasted the platforms’ moves, telling The Washington Post: “You’re on the wrong side of history mainstream media,” Jones said in a text message to The Post. “You sold the country out, and now you’re going to pay for it.”

Platforms have long been criticized for not only hosting Jones, but finding him a large audience using social features and recommendation algorithms. But pressure on the tech companies intensified last month after CNN’s Oliver Darcy asked Facebook a relatively straightforward question during a meeting between reporters and News Feed executives: How can the company claim to be serious about fighting misinformation while offering Infowars a large and growing platform?

“Different publishers have very different points of view,” was the answer John Hegeman, who leads the News Feed, gave Darcy at the time. But that answer only spurred more coverage of Facebook’s contradictory policies. The next week, Mark Zuckerberg fumbled an answer about Infowars by defending the rights of Holocaust deniers, and Facebook found itself in the midst of yet another public-relations crisis.

In the end it was hate speech, not misinformation, that got Jones booted from Facebook. But a close review of Jones’ posts to social networks was never going to withstand close scrutiny. A disturbing number of his fans were found to have threatened and committed real-world violence. This April, in a little-noticed incident, he repeatedly used an anti-transgender slur on Facebook and appears not to have been disciplined for it at all.

Until Monday, tech companies’ policies seemed to offer more protections to Jones than they did for families of the victims of Sandy Hook, one of whom moved seven times in an effort to escape the harassment of Jones’ followers. (Jones has spent years promoting the lie that the government faked the Sandy Hook massacre as a pretext for taking their guns away.)

There will surely be much more to be said about Jones in the days ahead. For tech companies, the question is less what to do about Jones — the answer has been clear for some time now — than what to do about everyone copying his playbook. Misinformation and hate speech spread quickly on their platforms, amassing audience in the millions. The platforms would do well to ponder why that is, and what they could do about it.

Democracy

Facebook to Banks: Give Us Your Data, We’ll Give You Our Users

Facebook has been talking to banks about bringing customers’ financial information into its system, report Emily Glazer, Deepa Seetharaman and AnnaMaria Andriotis. Facebook pushed back hard, saying the data would only be used for chatbots.

Strategists raise alarms about Facebook delays in approving Hispanic political ads

Ads that target Spanish-speaking Facebook users are facing delays, creating complications for political advertisers, report Michael Scherer and Elizabeth Dwoskin:

New procedures adopted by Facebook in response to Russian meddling and allegations of racially discriminatory ad practices often require several days for the company to review political ads targeted to ethnic groups, while ads that target broader audiences are approved immediately, said strategists for three liberal organizations, Priorities USA, Latino Victory and Win Dem PAC.

Another group that supports conservative causes has experienced the same delays when buying ads that target Spanish-speaking or Hispanic audiences on Facebook, according to an official there, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

Several groups banned by Facebook had strong similarities to Twitter accounts linked to Russia six weeks ago

Facebook found similarities between public tweets and Facebook accounts that were later found to be part of a coordinated influence campaign, report Elizabeth Dwoskin, Tony Romm and Craig Timberg. But it took the company a relatively long time to link them together:

In May, Twitter turned over to Congress documents describing the activities of more than a thousand accounts it tied to the Internet Research Agency, the Russian organization that spread misinformation in the 2016 election. Congress publicly released the documents in mid-June, and Facebook began to scrape them for clues to shadowy operators on its network, said Andy Stone, a company spokesman.

Facebook’s engineers, he said, were not able to tie the information to corresponding Facebook pages, even though some shared a name and posted similar content, two shared a creation date — and one had an identical logo. Stone said that the trove lacked key technical details, such as an IP address, phone number or email, which made it hard to establish a clearer link.

This Researcher Mapped Anti-Muslim Content On Facebook. She Says It’s “Way Worse” Than She Expected.

Ishmael N. Daro reports that despite regularly touting its ability to quash hate speech using artificial intelligence, Facebook has been slow to remove anti-Muslim posts. I’m looking forward to reading the paper he mentions here:

Squire, an Elon University computer science professor, analyzed hundreds of far-right Facebook groups over a 10-month period to map their connections for a research paper, “Network Analysis of Anti-Muslim Groups on Facebook,” that she will present at the Social Informatics conference in St. Petersburg in September. While she is no stranger to online vitriol, she said the anti-Muslim rhetoric on Facebook particularly “alarmed” her.

“I’m looking at these and I’m just thinking, if you substituted any other religion, it’s so bad no one would think that this is OK,” Squire told BuzzFeed News. “Why is this still up? What is going on?”

Lawmakers Pressure Google Over “Deeply Troubling” China Censorship Project

A bipartisan group of six US sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Friday asking for answers about its plans to build a censored news app for China.

A Generation Grows Up in China Without Google, Facebook or Twitter

The Times finds that people who have never used Google, Facebook, or Twitter are not particularly curious about it.

Campaigns on their own as cyber threats roil midterms

The work of protecting campaigns against cyber threats still falls mostly to the candidates — and there’s lots of work to do there, reports WHYY:

Every month for the last 18 months, [Sen. Kamala Harris’] office has discovered on average between three and five fake Facebook profiles pretending to be hers, according to a Harris aide. It’s unclear who creates the pages, which are often designed to mislead American voters about the ambitious Democratic senator’s policies and positions.

Elsewhere

Facebook is now a major mobile browser in U.S., with 10%+ market share in many states

People are browsing the open web — from inside Facebook!

While Facebook’s use as a mobile browser was still far outweighed by Safari in most cases, due to the dominance of Apple’s iOS in the U.S., the social networking app has achieved mobile browser market share of around 10 percent in many states, Mixpanel found.

Do tech workers make enough to buy a home?

At Facebook, the median salary is $240,000, and 51 percent of employees say they cannot afford a home in the Bay Area.

For journalists, is it time to delete your old tweets?

Probably!

Launches

Facebook is redesigning Pages so it’s easier to interact with local businesses

The old reason to create a page for your business was to get organic promotion through the News Feed. But now the News Feed is about your friends, destroying organic promotion, so pages need a new reason for being. Facebook’s latest answer is to essentially serve as a free website builder for small businesses, a la Squarespace, stuff the pages with call-to-action buttons, and monetize it with ads. This all feels pretty weak to me, at least from a utility perspective.

Takes

The High School We Can’t Log Off From

Twitter is high school, says Jennifer Senior. (High school never ends, responds Bowling for Soup.)

Clay Shirky, one of the shrewdest internet theorists around, has noted that the faster the medium is, the more emotional it gets. Twitter, as we know, is pretty fast, and therefore runs pretty hot. (Emotional tweets, research has shown, travel more swiftly than anodyne ones.) We often become creatures of our limbic systems when we tweet. Our self-regulation deserts us (been there); our prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive function and impulse control, goes offline; we become reward-seeking Scud missiles, addicts in search of a fix.

We become, in other words, teenagers, who are notoriously poor models of self-regulation — in large part because their prefrontal cortices are still developing and their dopamine circuits are pretty busy seeking stimulation. The psychologist Laurence Steinberg describes adolescents as “cars with powerful accelerators and weak brakes.” The neuroscientist BJ Casey deems them “more Kirk than Spock.”

Facebook and Instagram’s time management tools miss the point

The notion of “Time Well Spent” has been coopated and is rapidly losing its power, says Simone Stolzoff:

“Time well spent” is having its Kendall Jenner Pepsi moment. What began as a social movement has become a marketing strategy. Even Mark Zuckerberg’s mission for 2018 is “to make sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent,” a clear reference to Harris’ work.

But it’s easy to co-opt “time well spent” as a value once you’ve already captured the attention of 2.2 billion users. When companies like Facebook check the time-well-spent box with a few cosmetic design changes, they get credit for putting a bandaid on the symptom without addressing the disease.

And finally …

’Snapchat dysmorphia’: Patients desperate to resemble their doctored selfies alarm plastic surgeons

The hot new disease of right now is Snapchat dysmorphia:

Doctors have spotted a trend of people bringing in their own selfies, usually edited with a smartphone application, and asking to look more like their photos, according to an article recently published in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology.

The phenomenon is known as “Snapchat dysmorphia,” and it’s causing widespread concern among experts who are worried about its negative effect on people’s self-esteem and its potential to trigger body dysmorphic disorder, a mental illness classified on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

Body dysmorphia is a serious issue, and we shouldn’t make light of it. On the other hand, I’m not really sure that “Snapchat dysmorphia” — roughly defined as “the wish to look better in photographs” — is really a new phenomenon.

At least, until people start asking for dog faces.

Talk to me

Send me questions, comments, tips, your favorite pins from the now-deleted Infowars Pinterest page: casey@theverge.com