The information age is one that’s still evolving and unfolding. It seems that just as soon as we get used to something, everything changes.
The rise of “new media” was a long time coming, but in the early 2010s, it became clear that streaming video would be a huge part of it. Thanks to platforms like YouTube and iTunes, all it took to start a show was recording equipment and the ability to upload it online. With such a low barrier to entry, pretty much anyone could start their own program. However, a recent move by YouTube, Apple, and Facebook to ban conspiracy theory website InfoWars and its controversial host Alex Jones suggests the wild west days of new media are over.
Jones and most of his online channels were kicked off of the largest content delivery platforms for violating their terms of service. There is no question that these companies are censoring Jones, but as they are private companies and not part of the U.S. government, they can do it. Jones, whose primary business is selling dubious supplements and other products on his website, is not really important here. What makes this story notable is what this suggests about the future of new media.
Who is Alex Jones?
Alex Jones has been in the politics/entertainment talk radio business for a long time. He bills himself as a journalist, but he’s not. In reality, he’s like those late-night talk shows on A.M. radio where people would call in to talk about being abducted by aliens or controlled by their microwaves. He’s a crank in the long and storied tradition of political cranks throughout history. However, the new media landscape allowed Jones to turn his brand of crank-ery into a massive and profitable media empire. In fact, he even interviewed the current president of the United States back when Mr. Trump was still just a candidate.
Apple, Facebook, and YouTube all removed most of Jones’ videos and podcasts because they believe his positions on immigration, LGBTQIA issues, and the need for a violent revolution in America violated their policy on hate speech. InfoWars still has their own website and other options for distributing their material, but there is no doubt that losing their place on these services will mean fewer people will be able to see their shows.
If He’s a Crank, Isn’t This a Good Thing?
The great promise of the internet was that it would be a democratized medium. Celebrities, news organizations, and brands would all be able to have their own sites, but they had to share space next to blogs, new businesses, and everyday folks. Content like Jones provides is not new, and some might argue that cranks play a key role in the marketplace of ideas. It’s only when policies and beliefs have to stand up to opposing ideas, even if they are borderline ridiculous, that we know they are the right thing to do. However, this is not some giant crack down on free speech. At least, not yet.
There was a reason the abducted-by-aliens talk shows only aired on radio after midnight or on obscure stations. It was just something to fill the time. Yet, on the internet, reputable broadcasters share equal footing with cranks like Jones. There was no media gatekeeper like in the days of station mangers and newspaper editors. It’s like the wild west, where anything goes. Up until now, these companies—which profit from the content they host—have taken a mostly hands-off approach when it comes to censorship. This move from Apple, YouTube, and Facebook could signal those days are over.
So, What Does New Media Do Going Forward?
Streaming media is not going away, no matter what Apple, YouTube, or Facebook decide. While the barriers to entry may still be low, the barriers to longevity just got a little higher. This means that these tech companies, which have thrived from being open to their users, are starting to act a little more like old media. If Jones had a local talk show on old media, he’d have been fired long ago. Apple, YouTube, and Facebook are just making a firm statement about what sort of content is acceptable on their platforms. The real trick will be what happens next.
The case these companies make against Jones is fairly clear-cut. And these complaints have been out there for years. So, it doesn’t seem like this was a move taken lightly. Still, there is a chance that this could go too far. Depending on the threshold these companies have for what constitutes terms of service violations, they might start banning everyone who discusses controversial topics. It could take a very promising new media platform and snuff it out before it really catches on. But, it’s highly unlikely that will happen. If Apple, YouTube, or Facebook go overboard when it comes to moderating their content, people will go elsewhere. The internet is a vast space and the next big thing is probably being invented right now.
The bottom line is that there is no free speech crackdown happening. Rather, a new industry is figuring out in real-time how to deal with a crank who makes it big.
In the halcyon days of broadcast journalism, there was no chance someone like Alex Jones was going to sit in for Walter Cronkite one night. They chose their talent carefully, and even outlandish folks like Morton Downey, Jr. or Jerry Springer found their place in the media landscape. Yet, with online media the never-ending need for new content is finally meeting up with the ideas of standards and practices of old. But how these new standards will be enforced is what remains to be seen.
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