By David Z. Morris
February 24, 2018

YouTube has pulled a video posted by InfoWars, the media operation headed by notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The video, according to CNN, argued that the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, was a “deep state false flag operation,” and that survivors who have emerged as vocal critics of the gun lobby were actors.

Within hours of the Parkland shooting, Jones speculated in a radio broadcast that the tragedy had been engineered by gun control advocates, similar to claims he made about the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. In a video titled “David Hogg Can’t Remember His Lines In TV Interview,” InfoWars later suggested that Hogg in particular was a so-called ‘crisis actor’ being coached in his statements to the media. USA Today has described the conspiracy theory as “demonstrably false,” and found that it was spread primarily through Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook.

YouTube pulled the video, citing its policies against harassment and bullying. In addition, YouTube has also reportedly issued a ‘strike’ against InfoWars’ main YouTube channel, which could lead to the channel’s suspension or termination. However, YouTube pulled the video only after it was viewed tens of thousands of times, and it has subsequently been reposted multiple times. Moreover, a video with the same title and making the same argument is still viewable on War Room, another YouTube channel affiliated with InfoWars.

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That might make YouTube’s move seem like little more than a face-saving slap on the wrist. But in some ways it puts YouTube at the forefront of digital platforms’ ongoing efforts to tackle the issue of fake, manipulative, or otherwise harmful content. Facebook, for instance, has been grappling with ‘fake news’ for years and found no definitive solution, in part because it doesn’t want the regulation that could come with being treated by lawmakers as a publisher or broadcaster rather than a neutral sharing platform. More insidiously, false or misleading content tends to be very effective at getting users’ attention, which generates revenue both for its creators and the platforms that help spread it.

But YouTube’s decision to remove the InfoWars video signals a willingness to more directly curate content. That’s likely in large part because advertisers on YouTube are so closely linked to the site’s content, with ads running directly before monetized videos, including InfoWars’. Advertisers have sometimes felt that their brands were threatened by that proximity – for instance, major advertisers pulled ads from YouTube late last year after an investigation highlighted videos that appeared to exploit children.

That gives YouTube and its parent company, Google, more direct motivation to clamp down on potentially offensive content than Facebook, where advertising is not as closely linked to any particular piece of content. In another recent move, YouTube temporarily pulled advertising from videos by vlogger Logan Paul after two separate videos that triggered widespread outrage.

These strikes, warnings, and punishments, then, are ultimately motivated by YouTube’s desire to reassure the advertisers that make them money. That reality, however, seems lost on Jones and InfoWars, who are spinning their reprimand as yet another conspiracy. CNN says it referred three other InfoWars videos to YouTube for review, which Jones has characterized as CNN “calling to have a competing news organization shut down,” and described as part of a “globalist conspiracy.” That framing supports InfoWars’ broader thesis that it is uncovering truths being repressed by the “mainstream media,” rather than simply slandering teenagers who witnessed a mass murder as a way to sell overpriced dietary supplements.

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