Alex Jones has been hit with bans and suspensions by platforms ranging from Apple’s Podcasts app to YouTube to Google+ in recent weeks. There are few companies that want to be associated with dangerous claims that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. One consequential company that’s been overlooked is WordPress.com owner Automattic, which is now bringing down its own banhammer on conspiracy theorists.
When it comes to Sandy Hook conspiracy theory claims, it makes sense that we’d focus in on services like Twitter and Facebook; those are the kind of platforms that are right in front of our faces. But WordPress.com and its underlying content management system (CMS) is massive. A little over 31 per cent of websites use it and it controls 60 per cent of the CMS market. After the New York Times reported that the WordPress steward was powering many blogs that promote the Sandy Hook lies, it appears the company has changed its ways.
TechCrunch points out that Automattic has quietly changed its policies in a way that appears to directly target the problematic Sandy Hook sites. A new rule in its Private Information section bars the “malicious publication of unauthorised, identifying images of minors.” To be clear, this only applies to sites that are being hosted by WordPress.com. People are free to use WordPress’s open source site-building tools, do their own hosting, and rant at the moon.
Leonard Pozner is one of several parents of Sandy Hook victims whose lives have been turned upside down by harassment and threats of violence from people who believe they’re part of an evil plot. Pozner is suing Alex Jones for spreading this idea on his InfoWars programs and he spends a lot of time trying to remove this false information from the web. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Pozner approached the WordPress company with copyright claims asking to have photos of his deceased six-year-old son removed from several Sandy Hook truther blogs. Pozner described the company’s denial of his request as “cold.” The company claimed it couldn’t remove the images because they fell under its definition of fair use. WordPress.com takes a very liberal approach to fair use in order to prevent abuse like copyright claims that are motivated by someone trying to remove journalism about themselves that is true.
The new rule narrows in on a specific feature of these offending blogs and makes it easier to remove them. It seems to already be working. Here’s a conspiracy theorist on YouTube complaining his blog was “wiped out” without warning. Is he lying? Nope. American Everyman is gone. A cached article found by TechCrunch shows that he certainly was a Sandy Hook truther but it’s unclear if his blog contained images of any of the children who were victims.
A quick search on Twitter shows many others rallying together claiming their sites are being massacred without notification from WordPress.com and they’re all putting their brainworms together to spin up a narrative about this incidents’ ties to the Rockefellers and FEMA camps or whatever.
We reached out to Automattic to ask what motivated this policy change but did not receive an immediate reply. A spokesperson for the company reportedly declined to comment for TechCrunch. It makes a bit of sense that the company behind WordPress would want to keep this low key. Not only does it not want to rock the boats of lunatics, but it’s a very narrow policy change that could be avoided by just deleting any offending photos before someone notices.
It’s an interesting approach to the problem. It certainly isn’t going to take care of all the nutjobs spreading this theory, but it uses a scalpel while hanging on to WordPress.com’s preferred distance from the content it hosts. It’s also a reminder that these private companies can make any change they want at any time. If they don’t make a change, it’s because they don’t want to. Mealy-mouthed statements about the difficult balance of free speech is only a way of avoiding an admission that these platforms have too much power to control what speech is allowed. Just because they don’t always exercise that power doesn’t make it right.