Silencing speech or rejecting hate?

Big tech bans Alex Jones and InfoWars for violations

WHEN THEN-GOVERNOR Deval Patrick stepped to the microphone for the first press conference the evening of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, the first question stopped him and nearly everyone in attendance in their tracks.

“Why were the loud speakers telling people in the audience to be calm moments before the bombs went off?” the questioner asked. “Is this another false flag staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security while sticking their hands down our pants on the streets?”

Patrick simply answered “no” and moved on but the inquiry hung over it and took hold among the aluminum hat crowd. The questioner was later identified as Dan Bidondi, a talk show host for the right-wing conspiracy website InfoWars, run by conservative provocateur Alex Jones, according to the authors of the book Boston Strong.

The anecdote is telling in the wake of the decision by some of the biggest tech companies – Facebook, Google, and Apple – to remove InfoWars content from their platforms and ban Jones under their policies of hate speech, bullying, and false news.

The decisions by the tech giants were the culmination of warnings and selective removal of InfoWars videos and posts by Jones. Over the weekend, Apple deleted five podcasts by Jones that were on iTunes and then the floodgates opened with Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify sealing off Jones and his followers.

“We believe in giving people a voice, but we also want everyone using Facebook to feel safe,” the company said in a statement. “It’s why we have community standards and remove anything that violates them, including hate speech that attacks or dehumanizes others.”

It’s a slippery slope to determine whether Jones behaviors were so offensive and egregious as to warrant the ban or, as he and his followers claim, a result of trying to silence conservative speech they don’t agree with? Clearly, not everyone concurs that Jones is a risk to society as Twitter says he has done nothing to violate its policies.

“Who the hell made Facebook the arbiter of political speech?” tweeted US Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father has been the focus of some of Jones’ conspiracy claims about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “Free speech includes views you disagree with.”

But as the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” And that’s where the divide over Jones and InfoWars comes in.

Jones, whose election year rantings were often retweeted or picked up and repackaged by then-candidate Donald Trump, and his acolytes have a propensity for spouting conspiracy theories that attempt to undermine attacks by opponents against right-wing causes and ideology. In addition to the Boston Marathon “false flag” claim, Jones is currently being sued for defamation by parents whose children were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. Jones has questioned whether the attack really happened and called some of the parents and children “actors.”

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Jones also had to apologize after he pushed a preposterous conspiracy theory about a child sex ring involving Hillary Clinton and her then-campaign manager John Podesta that allegedly was being run out of a Washington pizza shop. Jones’ apology came after a North Carolina man went to the Comet Ping Pong restaurant with an assault weapon to “self-investigate” Jones’ claims and fired some shots inside the establishment.

There’s no doubt Jones spouts some absurd, even dangerous, claims. But is he responsible for others actions? The decisions by the tech companies would say yes. And, despite claims by Jones and others, it is not censorship since they are private companies and have the right to do what they want.

But it also toes the line on the argument by those championing net neutrality that allowing mega-corporations to control the internet gives them the power to decide what you see and hear rather than a free-flow of news and information, whether you agree with it or not. So far, though, none of those folks have come to Jones’s defense.