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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Twitter muzzles conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for a week

The controversial far-right broadcaster's radio show was also reportedly taken off air

Far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones's Twitter account had been suspended for a week, the latest online platform to take action against him. AFP
Far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones's Twitter account had been suspended for a week, the latest online platform to take action against him. AFP

Twitter is joining other prominent tech companies in muzzling Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist who has used their services to spread false information. It was also reported that the Federal Communications Commission had shut down pirate radio station Liberty Radio, which broadcast his radio show.

The FCC has also fined the station’s operators US$15,000 (Dh55,098) – a fine the FCC says in a lawsuit that the operators are refusing to pay. The lawsuit filed in federal court in Austin alleges Liberty Radio operated on a channel without a licence since at least 2013. The lawsuit names as defendants Walter Olenick and M Rae Nadler-Olenick.

Twitter had been resisting the move to silence Mr Jones, despite public pressure, including some from its own employees. But the holdout lasted less than two weeks.

“They seem to be reacting to the backlash they received when so many other companies in Silicon Valley ended up taking action,” said Keegan Hankes, research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Intelligence Project, who focuses on far-right extremist propaganda online. “It’s illustrative of a broader trend of reactive enforcement” by the companies, he added.

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Late on Tuesday, Twitter said it had “limited” Mr Jones’ personal account for seven days because he had violated the company’s rules. Mr Jones won’t be able to tweet or retweet, though he will be able to browse Twitter. The company would not comment on what the offending post said.

But in a video posted on Wednesday to the Twitter account of Jones’ Infowars show, Mr Jones said the company suspended him and may shut him down completely because he violated its rules by posting a “video I shot last night saying [President Donald] Trump should do something about the censorship of the internet.”

Later on Wednesday, Twitter put the Infowars account on the same seven-day timeout as Mr Jones, apparently for posting the same video.

Paul Joseph Watson, the editor-at-large for Infowars, posted a screenshot of a Twitter notice that said Mr Jones had his account “temporarily limited” because he violated its rules against “targeted harassment of someone, or [inciting] other people to do so”.

The video is no longer available on Twitter or Periscope, where Mr Jones posted it, but it is still up elsewhere on the web. In it, Mr Jones says people “need to have their battle rifles and everything ready at their bedsides and you got to be ready because the media is so disciplined in their deception”.

This punishment is light compared with that levelled by Apple, YouTube and Spotify, which permanently removed material Jones had published. Facebook, meanwhile, suspended him for 30 days and took down four of his pages, including two for Infowars.

Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey had originally defended his company’s decision not to ban Mr Jones, tweeting that he “hasn’t violated our rules”, but if he does “we’ll enforce”.

“We’re going to 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,” Mr Dorsey tweeted on August 7, after the other companies took action against Mr Jones.

The apparent change of heart reflects a Twitter still grasping to its roots as a free-wheeling Wild West of the internet in an age where online words can have serious real-life consequences. This while it and other social-media companies are grappling with how to enforce sometimes vague rules without appearing partisan and while leaning towards promoting, rather than curbing, free speech.

When deciding what the rules are and how to enforce them – especially when it comes to grey areas – they are up against both conservatives and liberals claiming bias and feeling silenced. There are also users who often just want to post about their daily lives, and even against their own employees, be they free-speech absolutists or those who feel people such as Jones do not deserve an online megaphone.

“The platforms cannot win because some constituency will be offended no matter what they do,” said Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School.

Twitter, Mr Hankes said, is either underequipped or unwilling to enforce its written rules, instead embracing the idea of an online free-speech utopia. But, he added, “the unchecked use of these platforms by bad actors does not make utopia”.

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