Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Zurawik on Alex Jones crackdown: Finally, digital giants showing some social responsibility

Finally, the giants of digital media are showing some social responsibility in cracking down on Alex Jones for violating their hate speech policies.

Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify have taken significant steps in recent days to punish the reckless conspiracy theorist and provocateur.

It is long overdue, but at least it is a step in the right direction in trying to regain control of a media ecosystem that has become polluted with misinformation, lies, propaganda, inflammatory rhetoric and hate.

The trouble with our media ecosystem is larger the Jones, of course. It starts at the top with a president who lies, slanders and stokes hate toward his enemies.

It expands through Trump-friendly media platforms like Fox News and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which produce propaganda for the president under the guise of news, analysis and commentary.

But the platforms Jones controls are among the most dangerous and toxic on the far right with his conspiracy claims, for example that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre didn’t really happen. It was a hoax and those children didn’t really die, Jones has claimed again and again.

Or how about his recent threat against special prosecutor Robert Mueller, using the metaphor of a gun battle in the Old West?

"That's a demon I will take down, or I'll die trying,” Jones said of Mueller on “The Alex Jones Show” podcast last month, one of the five Jones productions Apple confirmed that it had removed Monday.

“It's going to happen, we're going to walk out in the square, politically, at high noon, and he's going to find out whether he makes a move … and then it's going to happen," Jones said, using his hand as if he had a pistol in it.

"It's not a joke. It's not a game. It's the real world,” he continued as if addressing Mueller. “Politically. You're going to get it, or I'm going to die trying, bitch. Get ready."

Inflammatory enough for you? You can watch that video with all its slander and madness here if you want. I won’t include any part of it. The video below includes his response to the fierce blowback he experienced after making the threats. Watch it at you own risk.

I’ll spare you the really hateful and hurtful stuff Jones has been trafficking in from his perch in Austin, Texas, for years.

The move by YouTube alone instantly reduced Jones’ audience by 2.4 million subscribers to his channel. And there is more to come. Apple has not hit Jones nearly as hard as it could have yet.

“This is political censorship,” Paul Joseph Watson, editor-at-large of the Jones’ infamous InfoWars website tweeted Monday.

Not exactly.

First Amendment and free speech issues are complicated, but I know a couple of things to be absolutely true after years of teaching seminars on free speech.

First, in America, free speech has never been an all or nothing matter. It is always a balancing act, a compromise, between individual rights and responsibility to the community — usually as determined by the courts.

Jones has shown no sense of responsibility to anyone, especially survivors and family members who suffered great losses in horrific events like Sandy Hook and 9/11.

And, second, in America, flawed and tainted as it is, the most effective means to limiting hateful and inflammatory speech has been through corporate responsibility on the part of the owners of mainstream media platforms.

You cannot totally silence speech in America and still have a viable First Amendment, but you can drive the extremists to the fringes, the far margins of the media landscape. And when you do that, it greatly minimizes the effect they have on the civic conversation of American life.

Take the case of Glenn Beck. Remember all the media mayhem he generated when he had a weekday show on the mainstream platform of Fox News? If it wasn’t his reckless talk of conspiracies, it was his endless references to the Third Reich and on-air battles with Keith Olbermann, then the equally reckless star of the left on a highly-politicized MSNBC.

But once an advertiser boycott took hold and Fox News decided it had enough, Beck wound up exiled to the media margins where he founded TheBlaze down in Texas.

Once Beck lost that mainstream platform and audience of millions every day, he lost his power to pollute the national discourse to the extent that he had.

The hateful words and conspiracies that Jones traffics in can still be found on his InfoWars website, so he’s not being censored. He has just been moved off the mainstream platforms like YouTube while his presence has been significantly downsized on Apple, Facebook and Spotify.

Hopefully, consumers will start to think of Infowars as a rogue or gutter site on the web. That’s how marginalization works.

But it only happens when the corporations that own mainstream platforms police them responsibly.

This nation decided in the 1930s when Congress was shaping the Communications Act that we were not going to have a powerful public broadcasting system like Britain’s as our dominant media system. Instead, we were going to let corporations like NBC and CBS be “stewards” of the airwaves. Capitalism prevailed.

The deal: They got to make piles of money, but they had to serve the public interest in at least a minimal way.

The digital giants rose to power in the new millennium with no sense of obligation whatsoever when it came to public interest. Facebook was taking payment for political ads during the 2016 presidential campaign in rubles and asking no questions about the source of those ads.

I have been covering media far too long to believe people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have suddenly become more concerned about American democracy than their global fortunes.

But maybe they have finally come to understand that having blood on their hands because of the hateful words of Jones or the inflammatory rhetoric of Trump will be bad for business.

Here’s hoping the crackdowns continue.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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