Why does Twitter let Alex Jones break its rules with his rants? Well, money rules | Hannah Jane Parkinson | Opinion

Alex Jones isn’t your typical rock star name – I knew at least three at school. But rock star is what Alex Jones, the founder of the conspiracy enterprise Infowars and far-right rant-merchant, has become. At least to the millions of people who visit his site each month, the 427,000 Twitter followers and to the president of the United States, who has praised him.

Jones’s greatest hits include referring to US school shootings as “false-flag” hoaxes, enabled by “crisis actors” (a family of a Sandy Hook victim is currently suing Jones and has had to move multiple times to escape harassment from his fans); believing Hillary Clinton runs a paedophilia ring from a Washington pizza joint (off the back of which a man with a gun turned up at the restaurant); and that standard antisemitic trope of Jewish people running the world. Oh, and two weeks ago, he held up a Guardian article of mine as an example of more liberal media voodoo. I think Jones might be overestimating my global influence.

Last week, Apple, Facebook and YouTube blocked Jones from appearing on their platforms and removed (most) of his content. Apple led the way; others followed. Anyone searching now for Jones’s Infowars channel on YouTube will be met with a guideline violations message and find all content scrubbed.

But why now? Jones has been publishing his bullshit for years, growing in audience and influence. The truth, something Jones abhors, is, probably, money, in particular for the platforms that fell into line after Apple’s decision. Nobody wanted to be left holding this particular bald, screaming baby, whose frequent style is quite literally shouting, red-faced, while topless, in a pitch more familiar to dogs. Except for Twitter, which has refused to ban him.

This isn’t surprising. I have written many times on Twitter’s continuous, disingenuous reasons for keeping accounts that repeatedly break its rules online. Last time, it told me that Trump was still allowed on the platform for his “news value”, even though he quite merrily retweets racist content. I have lost count of the swastika avatars I have seen.

You might think a platform notorious for abuse (to the extent it has spooked investors) might panic at the thought it could be the only outlet left for Jones, but not a bit of it. Without Trump and the likes of Jones, Twitter’s influence would be much diminished. It is already a David to Facebook and YouTube’s Goliaths. Meanwhile, those companies will have one eye on their advertisers. Campaigns targeting advertisers, such as Stop Funding Hate in the UK, have been hugely successful both online and offline in pressuring companies to pull ads on sites (and in newspapers) with objectionable content.

As for the great free speech argument, all of the big tech platforms are private companies and, as such, have the right to decide who gets to engage on their networks. The blocking of Jones does not violate the first amendment in the US, for example, where the companies are based. (Though it’s also true that laws around hate speech both in the US and the UK can be hazy.)

There is an argument that social media is now the tech version of the old town square, the online water-cooler, and Jones should therefore be allowed his expression. But though these networks were established ostensibly to foster communication (Mark Zuckerberg is obsessed with the idea that Facebook is a big circle of hand-holding rather than, say, a potential vehicle for democratic manipulation), there is no denying that social media companies have evolved to become big mainstream media players. These organisations have always denied falling under the category of media, and not tech, but the Venn diagram of those two is now just a circle. The explanation of Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, that it is the responsibility of journalists to hold Jones’s ramblings on their platform to account doesn’t fly anymore. Most big tech is finally acknowledging this, hiring editors and creating news sections.

The decision of whether or not to ban the likes of Jones should be simple. If platforms have bothered to create guidelines and rules, then accounts that break them should be removed. Jones was suspended from both Facebook and YouTube before his permanent ban, given opportunities to alter his content, but he subverted the ban by appearing on others’ channels. The next step is for companies not only to take action against the big hitters (who would argue that Twitter isn’t a much better place without Milo Yiannopoulos, who was banned in 2016?), but also with the daily vitriol and abuse that make social media increasingly unpleasant and contribute to a toxic offline environment.

I am not for the rush to judgment in response to outrage mobs; I am an advocate of reading widely to avoid filter bubbles; I defend the rights of universities to invite whoever they want to speak. I also defend their right to not afford people that privilege, and that goes for private tech companies too.

What I’m reading

Snapchat surgery
It was probably inevitable. A Boston Medical Center journal investigation explores the rise of “Snapchat dysmorphia”, resulting in people seeking cosmetic surgery to better resemble their filtered appearance on the app. It is free to read, but requires registration.

In a jam
I was relaying (as I often do) my love for the New Yorker’s long read on elevators the other day when my interlocutor piped up that he was a fan of its deep dive on printer jams, from earlier this year. (I know, but trust me, it’s good.)

On the buses
I used to live in Oxford and still read its local news. I am obsessed with the Oxford Bus Company’s on-demand bus service app, PickMeUp. Let’s just say reviews in the Oxford Mail are mixed. Tech and transport – a fascinating topic.

Hannah Jane Parkinson is a Guardian columnist

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