Over the weekend, videosharing platform Vimeo pulled down videos posted by Infowars, joining major Internet companies that have shut their doors on the far-right American conspiracy theory and fake news website. Infowars, which did not have a significant presence on Vimeo, had posted over 50 new videos on the platform over Thursday and Friday after Apple, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Pinterest and MailChimp removed its content last week. After the action by Vimeo, Twitter remains the only big online platform where Infowars’ content is still available, apart from the Infowars website itself. What has Infowars become untouchable for the big tech companies?
Infowars was founded in 1999 by Alex Jones, now 44, a broadcaster and media owner who is America’s biggest conspiracy theorist. He broadcasts The Alex Jones Show five days a week from his base in Texas, which is aired on over 100 radio stations. Quantcast data show the Infowars website got 10 million unique visitors in December 2017, which is more than what The Economist and Newsweek got. According to a profile published in Der Spiegel last year, Jones has more than 60 employees, and the bulk of his revenues come from selling his own products like toothpaste, brain pills, bulletproof vests, guns, and sleeping and potency pills. His preferred style is to deliver monologues in an animated, shouty style, complete with yells, growls and cries, and includes ripping off his shirt and punching the table.
What he says in this gonzo style that his audience finds mesmeric, is often absurd. Among his claims are that the US government is controlled by a secret international cabal called the New World Order; a “Jewish mafia” controls US healthcare; Americans are about to be put in concentration camps; Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are not humans but demons from hell, attracting flies and smelling of sulphur; and Hillary has “personally murdered and chopped up and raped [children]”. He has also said the 9/11 and Boston marathon attacks were carried out by US agencies.
A Trump ally
The popularity of Jones has been seen variously as a manifestation of the appeal conspiracy theories have for the American public; the peculiar ways in which the Internet is shaping the flow of information; and the manner in which the Republican party has allowed lunatic fringe figures to become the mainstream. The last is seen the most clearly in the alliance between Jones and Donald Trump — the President has said the provocateur’s “reputation is amazing” and that he and Trump are “two saints of the same zeitgeist”. Commentators have noted that both men deal in fabrications, and like to break down complex issues into simplistic, dangerous binaries.
The tech companies have acted under pressure from users. Facebook said Jones’s pages violated its “hate speech and bullying policies”, “glorif(ied) violence”, and used “dehumanising language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants”. Twitter has chosen to be the outlier, declaring that it would “hold Jones to the same standard we hold to every account, not taking one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories”. And free-speech advocates have expressed reservations about social media companies playing censors. As for Jones, he now appears in an image with “Censored” taped across his mouth, asking people to download the free app “before the thought police censor Infowars for good”.