On Sunday, dedicated conspiracy theorists with iPhones searching for podcasts from the right-wing radio host Alex Jones and his media empire Infowars were stymied: Apple had removed five Infowars podcasts from iTunes and its Podcasts app. Within hours, two of Apple’s great megatech peers followed suit, as Facebook and YouTube both removed the official Infowars pages from their platforms.
The swift action taken by those companies is, on its face, a welcome move to limit hate speech and harmful content on large platforms. Facebook and YouTube have acted as megaphones for Infowars (and reaped the benefits in the process) — choosing to cut ties with the site and the millions of subscribers those accounts held, after months of pressure from consumers, employees, and victims of Jones’s conspiracy-mongering, they’ve finally shown an interest in policing their sites on behalf of their users.
The thing is, though, 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?
What the Infowars decisions represent is a capitulation — not to censors, not to the public, not to the deep state, but to the only entity left that has any real power over Facebook and YouTube: Apple. Once Apple had banned Infowars, suddenly Facebook and YouTube had cover to do so as well without risking the concentrated wrath of Jones’s followers; once Apple had banned Infowars, it was Facebook and YouTube that scrambled to adjust to the new boundaries of acceptable discourse that Facebook’s users can complain about all they want; only Apple can compel Facebook to act.
To a large extent, this is about perception: Apple took a strong stand, and its rivals determined that they didn’t like the obvious negative comparison. No one wants to be the only remaining home of Alex Jones. (Okay, maybe Twitter does.) But there are balance-of-power reasons, too. In the grand hierarchy of tech, all software needs hardware to run on, and Apple controls a big chunk of the hardware and the mechanism for installing software. While Facebook and YouTube and Spotify can all cite hate speech or policy infractions as their reasoning publicly, the unspoken reason is that to not follow Apple’s lead could get their own apps booted from the App Store. Federal law shields platforms from responsibility for what users post; Apple’s policies don’t. Last year, for instance, Apple rejected the mobile app for Gab, a Twitter clone preferred by the alt-right, citing hate-speech concerns. By continuing to host and promote content that Apple considered hate speech, Facebook and Spotify and YouTube ran the risk of being delisted as well.
If you believe that Alex Jones represents an unprecedented threat to the health of democracy, the mass removal of his official sites probably seems like a good thing. But it’s hard not to be cynical about both the motives and the outcomes of megaplatform policy changes, especially when they occur in the context of jockeying for power against one another. There are reams of objectionable content littering these platforms and it will never be fully eradicated. Infowars was an attractive target because of its millions of subscribers — an easy way to cut off a particularly huge megaphone. But the Infowars app is still available on Apple’s App Store.
Did these places arrive at the right destination? Sure. Eventually. But did they do it for the right reasons? If that were the case, I’m guessing it would have happened a lot sooner. It’s not like these places weren’t facing pressure from the general public and the press for a long time. It turns out that the only thing that can get a corporation to make the call on hate speech and dangerous conspiracy theories is pressure from another megacorporation.