clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Alex Jones, Sarah Jeong, and the Unwinnable Battles of the Censorship Wars

The conspiratorial ‘Infowars’ host is nothing without YouTube, and yet he’s nothing without getting banned, dramatically, from YouTube. What is the future of the censorship wars?

Black-and-white images of Alex Jones and Sarah Jeong, with YouTube, Facebook, and New York Times logos Getty/New York Times/Ringer illustration

Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify all banned Alex Jones. It took them years to detect and evaluate the fundamental mischief of his programming; and yet it all culminated with a week of outrage, agony, epiphany, and then, mercifully, some overwhelming action.

Last week, the podcast app Stitcher — the first major service to punish Alex Jones with a comprehensive ban — accused Jones of inciting “harassment.” Stitcher echoed the common, exhaustive concerns about Jones’s role in promoting conspiracy theories about school shooting victims, among other subjects, on his flagship program, The Alex Jones Show. Previously, YouTube and Facebook had removed specific segments and warned Jones about repeat violations of their respective content guidelines. Still, YouTube and Facebook avoided a comprehensive ban until now, citing concerns about segments that Jones posted months ago. On Sunday evening, Apple banned five podcast feeds linked to Jones, including The Alex Jones Show. By Monday morning, Facebook had shuttered the official Alex Jones pages, and YouTube had banned Jones and deleted his channel. Now, the Infowars archives link out to countless YouTube videos that no longer exist, having been scrubbed from the big corporate platforms at the heart of the modern public square.

Alex Jones was fated to fail any real, coherent content standards worth enforcing if only because he could exploit the inevitable right-wing backlash to his critics and censors. On Monday afternoon, Jones took to Periscope — his final live-streaming refuge — in order to address his followers from the Infowars anchor desk. There, Jones characterized the bans as a conspiracy to censor him and, inevitably, all other right-wing, pro-Trump media. It’s not just a ban; it’s a blackout. Indeed, the timing of his industry-wide ban does seem curious and, at best, arbitrary. Jones broadcasted his nonsense on these platforms for nearly a decade. He did not become “offensive” in just the past several months. Infowars has always been Infowars, a serialized rant about Jews, Muslims, and armed insurrection. But Jones insists that he and his programming represent the American political will, which did indeed elect a U.S. president who embodies Jones and his viewership: paranoid, whimsical, and spiteful. For Jones, Infowars has always been an absurdist test case of the private tech sector’s tolerance for extremist political rhetoric. Through countless broadcasts about fictional pedophiles and dead kids, Infowars defamed and distorted the very notion of “free speech.”

Such is the paradox of Alex Jones, Infowars, the alt-right, and this whole unfortunate orbit of web-taught, forum-dwelling eugenicists: They are nothing without YouTube, and yet they’re nothing without getting banned, dramatically, from YouTube (or wherever else). “The censorship of Infowars just vindicates everything we’ve been saying,” Jones tweeted this afternoon (yes, he’s still on Twitter). “Now, who will stand against Tyranny and who will stand for free speech? We’re all Alex Jones now.”

The bannings, the firings — they’ve become a blood sport. They’re the trench warfare of the Trump age. Three years ago, after several months of warnings, suspensions, and ill-advised hesitation, Twitter notoriously banned the right-wing troll Chuck Johnson for using the platform to incite violence against prominent Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson. Now there are too many Chuck Johnsons to count.

YouTube, Facebook, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher resolved to ban Alex Jones. Meanwhile, in the very same week, right-wing trolls and pundits launched a campaign to pressure The New York Times into firing its newest editorial board hire, the tech reporter Sarah Jeong. Her critics, too, cited online speech — Jeong’s many spiteful tweets about “white people.” Jeong’s tweets are mild stuff. In one of her most provocative tweets, Jeong simply wishes to “cancel” white people — “cancel” being a dramatic term for putting some unfortunate line-stepper in time-out, perhaps indefinitely.

The term “canceled” and the hashtag #cancelwhitepeople are not, as the New York columnist Andrew Sullivan suggests, “eliminationist” rhetoric. Jeong’s tweets are common, hyperbolic vernacular developed in support of the U.S. civil rights movement. If anything, Jeong and her supporters, including the Times, have made a subtle mockery of the quarrelsome rhetorical mode that Jeong adopted in her old tweets from 2014. It’s a rhetorical mode that online activist factions — most notably, black feminists — originally developed to mount severe critiques of patriarchy and white power. It’s a rhetorical mode that rendered those activists broadly unpopular in the media ecosystem until the Ferguson protests, which softened much of the national media’s regard for the modern civil rights movement. Now, in order to defend Jeong against calls for her firing, her supporters have trivialized her rhetorical mode as nothing but hip, ironic style, purely performative; a ruse to be adopted and dropped, at will, by mainstream media climbers. “I engaged in what I thought of at the time as counter-trolling,” Jeong tweeted last week. Jeong and The Times both characterized her tweets as “imitating the rhetoric of her harassers,” defensively.

Again, it’s silly for anyone to characterize Jeong’s tweets as sincere threats of physical violence — I don’t think she’s ever meant for anyone to run around “cutting” random white folks — but then The Times went and suggested that the newspaper stands by Jeong if only because it doesn’t take her rhetoric, or her politics, very seriously. Mercifully, I suppose. Still, it’s a shame to see the trivialization in progress. Of course, this disquiet is quickly drowned out by the chorus of conservatives who do (pretend to) read Jeong’s tweets as dead-serious calls for a race war. The liberals and the left defeated Alex Jones, and others, in just this year alone, through sheer persistence. Hence, the fury surrounding Jeong, defying the Times statement in support of her, working tirelessly to derail a rude feminist’s career.

Primarily, the Jeong backlash seeks revenge. Four months ago, liberals and leftists furiously mobilized against Kevin Williamson, the right-wing journalist whom The Atlantic had hired away, briefly, from National Review. Williamson is a conservative Republican who has suggested, repeatedly and in all seriousness, that women who get abortions should face execution. The digital mob that haunted Williamson didn’t need to nitpick his old, unfashionable tweets. They cited his actual politics. They cited the arguments that he stood by at length. They cited his sincere prescription of violence against women. They cited his political program — the basic substance that would qualify a politics essayist to write for a magazine in the first place.

Functionally, the campaign against Williamson resembled the earlier campaign against Quinn Norton, the tech journalist whom The New York Times hired, and then quickly fired, just two months earlier, for her old tweets, which included racist and homophobic epithets; and for her proud and current association with the neo-Nazi hacker known as weev. Still, Norton argued that a too-distant glance at her old tweets had produced a big misunderstanding — a context collapse — and so it was possible to regard Norton as a tragically ironic figure whose gravest offense was naivety. weev himself defended Norton, and he also defended Jeong. “Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly fragile and polarized society, thanks entirely to the political left,” he wrote on his website. “I think it is high time for us to come up with a new standard. Nobody on any point of the political spectrum should be fired because of their friends, their political opinions, their attendance at political demonstrations, or their perceived beliefs.” Thus, The Daily Stormer administrator hopes to broker a grand and, supposedly, peaceful equivocation.

Arguably, Norton was an ambiguous case. Jeong’s tweets were harmless. There’s no such doubt or comfort about the prominent right-wing agitators in question here. Jones really did malign and harass the survivors of multiple school shootings. He really did accuse Robert Mueller of raping children. Williamson really did call for women to be hanged; those were his words, and he stood behind them, even throughout the backlash that culminated with his firing. There’s nothing so trivial, ironic, or ambiguous about any of that. There is only right-wing violence obscured and defended through partisan relativism. If Alex Jones can’t use YouTube to promote the suggestion that school shooting victims are all crisis actors hired to support oppressive gun control restrictions, then Sarah Jeong can’t use Twitter to “cancel” white people. And she damn sure can’t use The New York Times to do it. So the argument goes.

There is a phrase that encapsulates the right-wing outlook on media, including social media and news media, now more than ever. The phrase, coined by the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, dates back to October 1991. The attorney Anita Hill sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee, then led by Joe Biden, and accused George H.W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee of workplace sexual harassment. Thomas then sat before the committee and famouly described its investigation of Hill’s harassment claims against him as “a high-tech lynching.”

In the longer quotation of his remarks, Thomas describes the investigation as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”

In so many words, Thomas appropriates “lynching,” a term that describes right-wing violence — specifically, white-supremacist violence — to describe mere scrutiny of right-wing figures. Thomas trivializes American history in the extreme. In his statement, Thomas doesn’t honor the realistic, racialized significance of lynching in the American context, except, of course, through the insinuation that his critics hate him because he’s black. Rather, Thomas describes lynching as a manner of repressing some brilliant, scandalous truth — a manner of censoring right-wing dissent.

Thomas spoke of “lynching” in the same, self-righteous manner that Alex Jones now speaks of “censorship” explicitly. Tragically, the general discourse now organizes itself around Thomas’s perverse and self-serving conception of “lynching”; we regard all passionate critics and activists as “mobs.” In this conventional wisdom, the warring mobs are all the same mob: a dumb, undifferentiated mass animated by vicious, senseless bloodlust masquerading as politics. But there’s only one mob supporting the Infowars guy; worse yet, white nationalism; worse yet, fascism. It’s been nearly three decades since the Senate confirmation hearings that elevated Clarence Thomas. The tech has improved, technically. And yet now, somehow, the tech involved is all so much worse, no thanks to mods.