I’ve been expecting the “hate speech vs free speech” issue to rear its head in podcasting for a while, and in the last week or so it has finally kicked off in a high profile way. If you haven’t been following this story from other outlets, here’s a very brief summary.
Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist radio host behind the Infowars website and network, has had most of his podcast content removed from most major podcast distribution platforms, including Spotify, Apple, Spreaker and Stitcher. Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest have also taken down some of his posts.
If you aren’t familiar with Jones’s work or why these tech giants don’t want to distribute it any more, here’s a brief selection of what Infowars has done:
“They are 9/11 truthers; fueled the Pizzagate conspiracy, which led to an automatic weapon being discharged in a Washington restaurant; have suggested Sandy Hookwas a ‘false flag’ operation; incited harassment against parents of crime victims; and have done far more.”
The podcast removals snowballed over several days, with Spotify initially saying they would remove “some episodes” from their listings, while Stitcher and Apple delisted whole podcasts (although the latter still has one of Jones’s six podcasts in their database at the time of writing). For a more detailed timeline of the removals, I recommend this Buzzfeed story.
Stitcher cited multiple cases of harassment on Jones’s podcasts as their reason for removing them:
Thanks for your note. We have reviewed Alex Jones’ podcasts and found he has, on multiple occasions, harassed or allowed harassment of private individuals and organizations, (1/2)August 3, 2018
and that harassment has led listeners of the show to engage in similar harassment and other damaging activity. Therefore, we have decided to remove his podcasts from the Stitcher platform. (2/2)August 3, 2018
When is a platform also a publisher? For me, this is the deeper question in this particular story, which also underlies the larger problems with fake, inaccurate and conspiracy content online.
Where once it used to be enough for a social network like Facebook or Twitter to claim that as merely the means by which information was distributed, they had no responsibility to police the content that appeared on their platform, in 2018 we’ve moved to a place where it’s widely accepted that the algorithmic feeds and recommendations used by these sites put the onus on the platform to ensure that what they’re distributing is not illegal, hateful, or dishonest.
In other words, because of their sheer size and influence, these distribution platforms have taken on the curatorial powers of a more traditional publisher, and they have to make ethical decisions about what content they choose to host for their users.
When it comes to podcasting, there’s a specific context, because of the tech that podcasts run on. Although it is accurate to say that none of Spotify, Apple, Spreaker and the rest were actually hosting Alex Jones’s podcasts (ie his mp3 files don’t live permanently on their servers), by making his RSS feed available in their apps, they are the primary means by which people access the shows. It’s different to a news story or video that you can consume in its entirety on Facebook without leaving the social network at all — in that case, there’s no ambiguity for me about who is hosting the content. Does running an RSS feed through an app count as publishing the content it contains? That’s the question.
For now, I believe you can still find the RSS feeds in their raw form, as self-hosted by Jones’s website, so it’s not the case that the podcasts have been “erased from the internet”, as I’ve seen a few reports and commenters suggest. This is where the “free speech” issue supposedly comes in, although that argument doesn’t wash at all. Jones is free to say and host what he likes (within legal limits) on platforms that he owns and fully controls. There is no moral or legal obligation for any other company to distribute what he says or publishes, though.
Of course, there will be substantial financial consequences for Jones now that no major podcast distributors are hosting his podcasts, because only the most dedicated fans will seek out his RSS feed to keep listening and his audience is going to shrink drastically. And, for better or worse, the podcast ecosystem relies on giants like Apple and Spotify to set the tone — many, many smaller apps and databases will, either automatically or manually, now be removing Jones as well.
So is a podcast distributor a platform or publisher? It doesn’t really matter, ultimately — each company is free to make their own decision about what podcasts they want to distribute, and it seems that in the last few days, Jones has suddenly become an unacceptable podcaster to many of the biggest players in the business. The only question that remains, I think, is why it took so long for them to take action on this at all.