Issue 172,  published August 7, 2018

The De-listing of Alex Jones

The past few months have seen a flurry of activity on the subject of internet platforms and their responsibilities around hateful content, harmful material, and the limits of free speech. The issue largely focused on high-volume media-distribution platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, but its scope actually extends much further than that: the e-commerce giant Amazon, as well, has faced scrutiny over some of the products it allows on its platform.

Last week, the ongoing saga reached podcasting shores, and it is there that the story proceeded to reverberate back outwards with significance.

Over the weekend, both Apple Podcasts and the Midroll-owned Stitcher removed entire podcasts by Infowars, the conspiracy theory-peddling media company led by Alex Jones, from their platforms. (If, for some reason, you are unfamiliar with Jones and Infowars, I highly recommend this profile by Charlie Warzel.)

Stitcher and Apple’s decisions came shortly after Spotify announced they were removing specific episodes from Alex Jones’ podcasts from its platform that were found to be in violation of its Hateful Content policy. At the time, the music streaming service was facing backlash for continuing to distribute the conspiracy theorist’s podcasts after Facebook and YouTube had temporarily suspended some of Jones’ programming for similar content policy violations. Spotify remained under pressure even after the selective removals, with critics continuing to raise questions on whether the platform had done nearly enough.

It’s worth noting that Stitcher was the first major podcast-distributing platform to de-list Jones’ shows in their entirety. The company did so on Thursday evening, citing over Twitter that Jones’ had, on multiple occasions, violated its policies when he published episodes that “harassed or allowed harassment of private individuals and organizations, and that harassment has led listeners of the show to engage in similar harassment and other damaging activity.” Sources within the company told me last week that the decision to completely remove Jones’ programming, as opposed to just focusing on specific offending episodes (as in the case of Spotify), stemmed from its concluding judgment that the podcasts were likely to violate its policies on harassment and abuse in the future. Stitcher’s move attracted a fair bit of media attention, with write-ups on Billboard, Engadget, BuzzFeed News, and TechCrunch.

Apple’s removal of Jones’ podcasts took place sometime during Sunday evening. I first noticed the de-listing around 6.45pm Pacific Standard Time, and BuzzFeed News published the first official report on the matter shortly after. In the report, Apple similarly cited policy violations as the grounds for Jones’ removal. As a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News:

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… podcasts that violate these guidelines are removed from our directory making them no longer searchable or available for download or streaming. We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions.

Strangely, Apple’s decision only impacted five out of six Infowars podcasts. Real News With David Knight, Infowars’ daily news recap show, remains active on the platform. No explanation was given as to why. The BuzzFeed News report also highlighted the efforts by Sleeping Giants, a social media-based activism group, to lead pressure campaigns to get major internet platforms to cut ties with Jones.

Apple’s decision to de-list Jones’ podcasts is noteworthy for its ripple effect within the podcast ecosystem. The Apple Podcasts platform does not actually host podcasts itself, functioning instead as an inventory to which you have to submit your RSS feeds to review for inclusion. Because of Apple Podcasts’ historical scale, infrastructure, and preexisting inventory map, a significant number of other podcast apps, including the public radio coalition-owned Pocket Casts, rely on Apple Podcasts’ inventory to determine their own offerings — sometimes to be efficient in populating their app, other times to lean on a larger authority for content policing. The removal is also noteworthy, obviously, for the fact that Apple Podcasts is believed to still be the most widely used podcast listening app in the market.

And it seems the ripple effect has extended outwards as well. Yesterday, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify all followed up by completely removing Alex Jones and Infowars programming from their platforms, all citing repeated violations around their hate speech and harassment policies.

As the bans from Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube trickled out on Monday, there emerged some debate about whether the bans were the result of separate processes that were all bound to end up at the same conclusion, or whether this was a situation where these gargantuan platforms were simply waiting for someone else to take the first step. Given the timeline and stutter-step nature of Monday’s Infowars bans, I can’t help but view this as the latter. When it comes to big internet platforms (or any huge organization with massive stakes, really), deeply complicated questions, and moral leadership, stories like these almost always crescendo to a point where everyone arrives at a holding pattern that waits for someone else to take the first step into the muck — and reveals the full ramifications of what happens on the other side.

In this case, the first one in was comparatively smaller Stitcher, and I can’t shake the feeling the company’s actions ended up attracting the right amount of attention and creating a permission structure that made it easier for the others to move in this direction. For what it’s worth, I hope they get the credit for it.