How Big Tech’s war on Alex Jones left First Reading pockmarked with Orwellian dead zones

 

Good day Austin:

I’ve been in Austin five-and-a-half years. For the last couple of years I’ve had an obsessive interest in Alex Jones. This is important work, I tell myself.

But I know the way other people look at me.

I read the snide comments.

I have been formally recognized for my obsession.

I was named a Best of Austin by the Austin Chronicle last year, thanks to my coverage of Jones, but, as grateful as I was for the distinction, I knew that it was more in the nature of being humored than honored.

I went to the Best of Austin event, but before the actual program got underway, I got an email from Roger Stone, who had brokered the political marriage between Alex Jones and Donald Trump that, perhaps as much and probably more any Russian collusion, elected Donald Trump, and who has since become part of the InfoWars broadcast team.

The message from Roger:

Yo: I am in Austin – headed to – you guessed it. Russia House!

Give me a call.

I had introduced Roger to the Russian House the previous June – are you listening Mueller (oh, but you already knew that).

On Tango Tuesday  no less.

I split the Chronicle event when I got Roger’s message and headed to the Russian House. We had a drink and I took him to Licha’s Cantina where we had dinner on the porch.

Paul Manafort, Stone’s former partner at Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, had just been indicted by Robert Mueller. Stone said Manafort told him he wasn’t worried.

Stone, who also serves as the Daily Caller’s Men’s Fashion Editor, and compiles an annual Best and Worst Dressed List, noted that Manafort had spent an enormous amount of money on ill-fitting suits that he thought looked good on him.

The man, it seems, had more money than fashion sense.

Manafort didn’t make Stone’s 2017 list, though Steve Bannon, his successor at the helm of the Trump campaign, did rank as among the worst dressed: Not meant to be confrontational. In all seriousness: Lose the three button down shirts on top of each other.

It’s an eclectic bunch that included, among the best dressed, Mark McKinnon  (His trademarks are hats and scarfs, which he pulls off in almost any climate or setting with aplomb.)  and Anthony Scaramucci (During his short stint at the White House, he showed America how a well-built man of medium stature should properly tailor his suits.)

Among the worst dressed were Harvey Weinstein (For a slovenly and blobby man, he relies far too heavily on white dress shirts… is he trying to showcase his grease stains from the KFC bucket he downed in the limo before hitting the red carpet?), and Mark Zuckerberg ….

Mark Zuckerberg: All the money in the world and he still can’t dress. In 2017, we saw a lot more attempts to dress up his look, but it just has not worked. Zuckerberg at least looked confident in himself when schlepping around in t-shirts and hoodies — looking like the control-freak coder that he really is. When he puts on a suit, it is horribly tailored and looks like he got it off the rack at a red-dot sale. Instead of concocting new ways to censor Facebook users, Zuckerberg should swing by Saville Row. This is his first year on the WORST DRESSED list.

Ah yes, Mark Zuckerberg – the man who reminds you every day that someone you know is celebrating a birthday, even friends who have already died, and then has the ghastly Big Brother nerve to prepare anniversary albums with you and whoever – living or dead – recollecting the good times.

Which brings us back to Alex Jones.

A week ago Saturday Ted Cruz was at Erick Erickson’s Resurgent Gathering in Austin, where, in a gaggle with reporters, he expanded on his tweet criticizing Facebook’s suspending Alex Jones’ personal account.

From Cruz:

When I sent the tweet on Alex Jones it was striking how all – I did not see any liberals saying, “Like Cruz, I don’t like Jones either, but  I do believe in free speech and we shouldn’t be censoring speech we don’t agree with,” and it’s worrisome that the left, so much of the left, and for that matter, so many in the media – look there were reporters who took a lot of shots at me for that.

There used to be a time when reporters were big supporters of the First Amendment. And you know as the poem goes, ‘First they came for Alex Jones…

I stayed up most of that night Sunday night writing a First Reading about it.

While Cruz notes that he is rising to Jones’ defense even though he says Jones spread the story about Cruz’s father and Oswald, that canard, as I note, was more the handiwork of Trump and Stone (who insists it’s true.)

I predicted that Cruz could reap political rewards by standing with Jones amid a Big Tech crackdown on InfoWars:

Which will give Cruz more reason to press his, “I don’t like what Alex Jones says but I will fight to the death defending his right to say it,” which will be well good enough for Jones, who will tout Cruz’s stout defense of him against the Big Tech/Deep State to his legion of listeners who in 2016 proved they could help elect a president,and in 2018 could help re-elect a Texas senator.

I had to get that First Reading done by Monday morning so I could set off with my daughter, who was visiting from Brooklyn, on a one-week tour of such West Texas landmarks as Marfa, the McDonald Observatory, Big Bend, Boquillas del Carmen and the Chinati Hot Springs outside Ruidosa, all first-time visits for me and precaution in case my tenure at the Statesman should come to an abrupt end and I find  myself back where I came from with only my memories of Texas.

I had already devoted much of the previous two weeks to Alex Jones – one week preparing a story about all the defamation lawsuits being filed against Alex Jones, then a couple of days the next week covering efforts by Jones’ lawyers to dismiss two of those cases in Travis County District Court.

I was already being temperate in my Jones coverage – neglecting to be in the courtroom two other days that week when Kelly Jones, his ex-wife, pressed cases against him.

Enough. I had a yurt to pitch in Mara. (I know, it was already pitched.)

El Cosmico, Marfa

But, of course, Mark Zuckerberg knew of my plans, based on Facebook’s surreptitious but perfectly obvious surveillance of my searches and purchases, and still he plotted down to the final moment to ruin things for me and my daughter.

From Kevin Roose’s Aug. 10 story in the New York Times: Facebook banned InfoWars. Now what?

Late on Sunday, after returning to his hotel room on a trip away from home, Mark Zuckerberg made a decision he had hoped to avoid.

For weeks, the Facebook chief executive and his colleagues had debated what to do about Infowars, the notorious far-right news site, and Alex Jones, Infowars’ choleric founder, who became famous for his spittle-flecked rants and far-fetched conspiracies, including the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was an elaborate hoax promoted by gun-control supporters.

Mr. Jones is just one Facebook user out of 2.2 billion, but he had become symbolic of tech platforms’ inconsistency and reluctance to engage in a misinformation war.The pressure on Facebook to do something about him had intensified after executives gave a series of vague and confusing answers to lawmakers and reporters about the company’s policies. Misinformation was allowed to stay on the platform, they said, but hate speech wasn’t. So users dug up and reported old Infowars posts, asking for their removal on the grounds that they glorified violence and contained dehumanizing language against Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people.

These posts clearly violated Facebook’s hate speech rules. And in a normal situation, a low-level content moderator might have reviewed them, found that they qualified, and taken them down.

But Mr. Jones was no typical internet crank. He has millions of followers, a popular video show, and the ear of President Trump — who once told the provocateur that his reputation was “amazing.” Banning such a prominent activist would lead to political blowback, no matter how justified the action was.

The situation was volatile enough that Mr. Zuckerberg got personally engaged, according to two people involved in Facebook’s handling of the accounts. He discussed Infowars at length with other executives, and mused privately about whether Mr. Jones — who once called Mr. Zuckerberg a “genetic-engineered psychopath” in a video — was purposefully trying to get kicked off the platform to gain attention, they said.

The pressure on Facebook to do something about him had intensified after executives gave a series of vague and confusing answers to lawmakers.

And there was the peer pressure.

Back to the New York Times story:

Late Sunday, Apple — which has often tried to stake out moral high ground on contentious debates — removed Infowars podcasts from iTunes. After seeing the news, Mr. Zuckerberg sent a note to his team confirming his own decision: the strikes against Infowars and Mr. Jones would count individually, and the pages would come down. The announcement arrived at 3 a.m. Pacific time.

In the days that followed, other platforms — YouTube, Pinterest, MailChimp, and more — said they, too, were banning Infowars. The notable exception was Twitter, which decided not to ban the site or Mr. Jones. The company’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, tweeted a veiled shot at the way his rivals handled the situation.

“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,” he said.

Now, cut off from most of his audience, Mr. Jones will have to chart a new course. He has already stepped enthusiastically into a role as a free-speech martyr. (After the ban took effect, Infowars slapped a “censored” label on its videos and launched a “forbidden information” marketing campaign.) And conservatives — and even some free-speech advocates on the left — worried that social media companies may be entering a new, censorious era. Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, paraphrased the famous Martin Niemöller poem about German accommodation of Nazism: “First, they came for Alex Jones.”

By Monday morning my obsessive interest had become the nation’s obsessive interest, but  my yurt beckoned.

So, a few hours late, my daughter and I embarked on our 1,647-mile journey, leaving behind Alex Jones and, for the first time since we’d met, my Macbook (at the Apple Store no less,  where it was to get a new battery and a better listening device, I suppose.).

As Sebastian Herrera and Nicole Cobler wrote Friday in the Statesman ,in the short-term at least, the crackdown on Jones resulted in a surge in his audience.

For once in his life, Jones seemed to be at the center of a genuine conspiracy against him, and whatever the ultimate financial cost, if there is one, for now and for some time to come Jones was in a kind of InfoWarrior Nirvana.

 

So, if this social media crackdown on Jones is not hurting Jones, who is it hurting?

Oh, I can answer that one: Me.

It’s not so much Facebook cutting off Jones that’s done me in. It’s YouTube.

For the last two years, I have written First Reading after First Reading about Jones, about his rising influence, about how he is to be taken, about what he represents, and an indispensable element has been posting YouTubes of various rants and interviews, along with screen shots and my transcriptions of the pertinent moments. But the YouTubes let the readers see it all for themselves.

And now, whether its my recent First Reading about Jones’ working (i.e. hectoring Bernie Sanders at LAX and the like) family vacation in Hawaii, or Roger Stone’s last tango in Austin, my hand-crafted blog is pockmarked with these ugly, dark Orwellian dead zones.

It is hideous. And hurtful.

What’s more, YouTube was the most effective way for me to keep up with what Jones was up to.

He’s on about three hours a day, or more. With YouTube I could return to the show, scroll through to get the good stuff, transcribe what I wanted and grab the most evocative screenshots.

But now, from my first experience with the new world order yesterday, it seems the only way to really follow what’s going on is to actually listen to it live. Yes, you can go back and listen to the radio show again, but a rant is only half a rant without the visual.

Maybe there is a way to do what I used to do without YouTube, but in the meantime, I simply can’t do as good a job of keeping track of what Jones is saying as I did when I earned that Best of Austin encomium.

As for the public good, I don’t know.

It is a mistake to simply conflate the defamation suits with the social media restrictions.

The lawsuits are built around the argument that Jones pretends to be a journalist on the air, but then retreats behind the legal argument that he is merely an opinionated blowhard protected by the First Amendment when he defames someone.

And I am not at all comfortable with Mark Zuckerberg in his footie pajamas making some unilateral, 3-in-the morning decision about what speech is permissible and what is not on his ubiquitous platform.

As Matt Taibi wrote in Rolling Stone, under the headline, Censorship Does Not End Well: How America learned to stop worrying and put Mark Zuckerberg in charge of everything

Jones is the media equivalent of a trench-coated stalker who jumps out from from behind a mailbox and starts whacking it in an intersection. His “speech” is on that level: less an idea than a gross physical provocation. InfoWars defines everything reporters are taught not to do.

Were I Alex Jones, I would think Alex Jones was a false-flag operation, cooked up to discredit the idea of a free press.

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Moreover, Jones probably does violate all of those platforms’ Terms of Service. I personally don’t believe his Sandy Hook rants — in which he accused grieving parents of being actors in an anti-gun conspiracy — are protected speech, at least not according to current libel and defamation law. Even some conservative speech activists seem to agree.

And yet: I didn’t celebrate when Jones was banned. Collectively, all these stories represent a revolutionary moment in media. Jones is an incidental player in a much larger narrative.

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In about 10 minutes, someone will start arguing that Alex Jones is not so different from, say, millennial conservative Ben Shapiro, and demand his removal. That will be followed by calls from furious conservatives to wipe out the Torch Network or Anti-Fascist News, with Jacobin on the way.

We’ve already seen Facebook overcompensate when faced with complaints of anti-conservative bias. Assuming this continues, “community standards” will turn into a ceaseless parody of Cold War spy trades: one of ours for one of yours.

This is the nuance people are missing. It’s not that people like Jones shouldn’t be punished; it’s the means of punishment that has changed radically.

For more than half a century, we had an effective, if slow, litigation-based remedy for speech violations. The standards laid out in cases like New York Times v. Sullivan were designed to protect legitimate reporting while directly remunerating people harmed by bad speech. Sooner or later, people like Alex Jones would always crash under crippling settlements. Meanwhile, young reporters learned to steer clear of libel and defamation. Knowing exactly what we could and could not get away with empowered us to do our jobs, confident that the law had our backs.

If the line of defense had not been a judge and jury but a giant transnational corporation working with the state, journalists taking on banks or tech companies or the wrong politicians would have been playing intellectual Russian roulette. In my own career, I’d have thought twice before taking on a company like Goldman Sachs. Any reporter would.

Now the line is gone. Depending on the platform, one can be banned for “glorifying violence,” “sowing division,” “hateful conduct” or even “low quality,” with those terms defined by nameless, unaccountable executives, working with God Knows Whom.

These are difficult things to sort out and I don’t understand the workings of social media well enough to know exactly what I think about all this, and I may never.

In the middle of last week, my daughter and I went to the Lost Horse Saloon in Marfa, which was recognizable by its neon sign.

As I sat a small table with my daughter drinking a beer, two guys at the bar – they turned out to be brothers – were having a loud and lively conversation about Alex Jones. l couldn’t help myself. I listened intently, I looked over at them and then, when one of them noted my interest, I joined their conversation.

They enjoyed listening to Jones, but thought he could be destructive, even dangerous, and yet didn’t think any form of censorship was the way to go.

The  brothers brought up Jim Bakker, a natural enough association. Now selling huge buckets of food on TV to survivalists with his mesmerizing rap (and Trump love), Bakker is an Alex Jones forerunner

I used to watch Jim Bakker with his wife, Tammy Faye, before he went to prison.

The brothers, a lot younger than I am, watch the post-prison Jim Bakker and his new wife, Lori. (Here, courtesy Vic Berger. )

InfoWars ran on on-line poll yesterday.

As of this morning, Drudge was edging out Breitbart.

But, as of this morning, Drudge is still going strong.

There in the lower left was a link to InfoWars’ latest.

But leading the page was Roger Stone.

It links to a Daily Caller column by Stone: The Witch Hunt Continues.

Under his byline, Stone is identified as the Daily Caller’s Men’s Fashion Editor.

 

InfoWars depends on sales of its nutraceuticals, t-shirts and what-not.

Stone yet again yesterday was swearing by Brain Force Plus to get him through some very long days.

And yesterday Jones was, as usual, high on adversity.

This is bad folks. What’s the big event? We all know they are going to try to overthrow Trump. Economically, they’re trying to crash things, they admit it. They are trying to start big wars.

We’re living in an incredibly volatile time so I’m getting excited knowing I’m over the target. But at the same time I’ve got to think, they wouldn’t be pulling this unless they’ve got something big planned.

They wouldn’t be doing all this  all this unless they didn’t want us in the public square when they launch this big thing.