Silicon Valley Adopts Chinese Censorship Tactics

Nathan Baker
Aug 7, 2018 · 9 min read

Alex Jones and InfoWars were banned from Apple, Spotify, Facebook, and YouTube in near unison on August 6th, 2018. The reasoning: violation of “community standards.” InfoWars was purported to have incited violence and harassment. They were purported to have engaged in “hate speech.” Within 24-hours, they were banned from all three major platforms.

Alex Jones and InfoWars are alive and well on Twitter (as I type), where the conversation is raging about the ban. On one side, there’s absolute elation that the ban is in effect. On the other, outrage at the suppression of free speech. But you may ask; has InfoWars really incited violence and harassment? I’ve yet to see any true examples. Did they engage in hate speech? How is that defined?

The enforcement of the ban seems rather arbitrary. Folks on the political left have been calling for Alex Jones to be banned since the election of Donald Trump. InfoWars has been called “racist” and a spreader of “fake news,” and this is usually the reasoning behind those who call for its ban. Although no examples of real racism ever get presented when these accusations get thrown around, it’s clear that InfoWars isn’t the pinnacle of credibility when it comes to reporting. Yet “misinformation” wasn’t the reasoning for the ban.

Where is the incitement of violence? Is it really just fear that unstable listeners will act out violently toward the adversaries of InfoWars (i.e. the “globalists” they always talk about)? Couldn’t this happen with any political commentator who rails against their opponents? Why aren’t examples of incitement being presented by the platforms and those reporting on this?

Where is the hate speech and how is that defined? Well, here is how Facebook defines it:

“We define hate speech as a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability. We also provide some protections for immigration status. We define attack as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation.”

InfoWars is a loud voice when it comes to opposing illegal immigration and sharia law. So if Facebook does “provide some protections for immigration status,” does voicing an opinion against illegal immigration count as “hate speech?” If InfoWars shows disdain for the practice of sharia law, does it count as “hate speech?” The tone and manner in which one expresses these views is taken into account here when these decisions are made. Plenty who voice their opposition to illegal immigration and sharia law don’t get banned from these platforms, but at the end of the day, it’s the platforms who decide what is appropriate and what is not in this sphere of speech. This is where things get squirrelly.

Tech platforms in China have their own set of rules when it comes to censorship. They are regulated by a state body to ensure “social harmony.” One thing China censors is “rumors” being spread online, or “unverified information.” This is essentially China’s answer to “fake news.” It just so happened to be emphasized by government regulators when the government was covering up the Wenzhou train collision of 2011, when the people were not buying the official death toll numbers spouted by the government. By 2015, 200 people had already been prosecuted for “spreading rumors” online. Who knows how many of them were actually telling the truth.

Other regulations on speech include “endangering national security,” “leaking state secrets,” “subverting the government,” “undermining national unity,” and “destroying the order of society.” “Leaking state secrets” seems pretty straightforward, but the other rules are rather subjective.

How can you define “destroying the order of society?” Does being pro-LGBT undermine the traditional family structure of China, thus destroying society? How can you define “undermining national unity?” Disagreeing with a bad government policy can essentially get you in trouble here because you aren’t going along with the so-called “unity” of the country. Could you imagine if the Trump administration could (or would) enforce a rule like this?

Granted regulations like this exist in China, online platforms take it upon themselves to censor heavily. Certain keywords are banned on Sina Weibo, the so-called “Twitter of China.” This is largely automated, although manual review also takes place by the platform censors. A censored user either gets informed that their content has been deleted by the censors, or the content gets shadow-banned and the user may not even notice it.

Weibo Censorship Flow

It gets trickier on WeChat, China’s largest social platform and most ubiquitous form of communication. You may say one of the banned keywords in a group-chat or share a piece of banned content and the other users in the chat will not see what you shared. You may not even realize it. A common occurrence is someone shares a video, then they’ll followup with a comment on the video. The other users in the group-chat will say, “what video?” An exchange of screenshots will then be shared by the users to show what they see on their screens. The original sender will of course have the video in their chat-stream, while the other users will not.

WeChat Shadow-Ban Example

So how does any of this connect to what Silicon Valley just did to InfoWars? It has to do with the interpretation and enforcement of murky rules. When you write a rule as vague as “destroying the order of society” or in Facebook’s case, “a direct attack on people based on protected characteristics,” a lot can be left to interpretation.

There are plenty of official Facebook Pages which you would think violate Facebook’s community standards, but are allowed to remain. This includes the blatantly hateful Page, “I Hate White America.” There are quite a few Pages and communities with similar themes that exist on Facebook.

Then there are less obvious cases. The Root is an online publication consisting of the self-proclaimed “insightful and savvy commentary from black thought-leaders.” They are followed by over 1.4 million Facebook users. They post content you would think violates Facebook’s community standards almost daily. Recent posts include awards for the “worst white people” and a list of “8 Kinds of Black Donald Trump Supporters.” The latter may sound rather benign, but open the article and you’ll see it’s full of hateful rhetoric towards black people who think differently from these so-called “black thought-leaders” who write for The Root.

The Root is allowed to regularly publish blatantly hateful content to its 1.4 million followers while InfoWars gets banned for vague allegations of “hate speech” and incitement. The enforcement of community standards is clearly flexible and very open to interpretation, much like Chinese online speech regulations. When Facebook feels like silencing you, they can rely on dubious rules to justify it. This is especially helpful if Facebook wants to influence democracy.

Facebook has been under fire for permitting the Russian operated Facebook Pages and ads before and after the 2016 US presidential election that were meant to sow political discord. This was dubbed “Russian election meddling” by many in the media and in politics. Now Facebook itself is silencing an independent media channel that is more often than not, pro-Trump, and it just so happens to be close to mid-term elections. Is this not a form of political meddling during election time?

InfoWars isn’t the first to be silenced by a major Silicon Valley platform. Right-wing provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, was banned from Twitter in July 2016 for questionable violations of community standards after he lampooned a Hollywood actress and his fans piled on to attack her. He was officially banned for “inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.” So if you make a joke about an individual and your fans decide to go after this individual with hateful comments, you can be held responsible and banned from the platform. Milo still produces content and shares to Facebook and YouTube, ban-free.

What’s really frightening (and unique) about the InfoWars ban is how coordinated it was between the major platforms. It’s like leadership in all four companies were talking behind the scenes about rolling out the ban. We’re seeing a monopolistic application of arbitrary enforcement for vague rules that just so happens to silence right-wing voices before an election.

What disturbs me more than anything is the reaction of many Americans (including people close to me). People are laughing this off and saying, “good, I hate InfoWars.” People are celebrating the censorship. InfoWars isn’t granted 1st Amendment rights from these private companies, but the American ideal for free speech is ingrained in our culture. When the Silicon Valley techno-oligarchy dominates the space for political discourse and they start silencing people, Americans aren’t supposed to celebrate. The marketplace of ideas is supposed to be left untouched.

This just so happens to coincide with a grand reckoning of outrage-mob culture in America, which has been the cause for many firings and resignations in the past several years. Roseanne Barr was just fired from her own TV show for a single Tweet that was deemed racist. Soon after, James Gunn was fired from Disney for a series of disturbing pedophilia-themed jokes that were uncovered in his Twitter history. It seemed many of those cheering on the firing of Roseanne were defending James Gunn. Those defending Roseanne were saying “here’s a taste of your own medicine” when James Gunn was fired.

Right before InfoWars was banned, the New York Times hired Sarah Jeong, a politically-charged tech writer, known for her work at The Verge. A screenshot of anti-white Tweets she wrote during a 2-year period circulated and the right-wing outrage-mob went after her and the NY Times immediately, calling out the double-standard of treatment often seen when right-wingers lose their jobs for much less. The New York Times PR team quickly went on the defensive and claimed Jeong was simply reacting to hateful Tweets in a regretful way and that the screenshot circulating misrepresented things. This isn’t the whole truth though, or even close to it.

Freelance journalist, Nick Monroe, dug deeper in Sarah Jeong’s Twitter history and found hundreds of anti-white Tweets over a 4–5 year period. Jeong clearly has a problem with white people and has voiced hatred for years and the New York Times doesn’t seems to have a problem with this. Neither does Twitter. Meanwhile, many of the folks out there celebrating the ban of InfoWars have been defending Jeong and the NY Times. The double-standards and cognitive dissonance is terrifying for supporters of a free society, as gate-keepers are deciding who is allowed to violate the so-called rules and who isn’t, while many Americans cheer it on.

There truly is an “information war” going on here as InfoWars is banned from the places the majority of Americans spend their time online. The coordinated execution of Chinese-style censorship tactics by American platforms makes it all the more spine-chilling. I’m expecting things to only get worse before they get better.

Nathan Baker

Written by

New Media in Shanghai — Social / Digital / Creative Marketer & Group Account Director @ We Are Social in China. Taking Chinese brands over the Great Firewall.

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