When news broke that the Alex Jones podcasts were removed by Apple, YouTube, and Spotify, Ryan Graney felt hopeful. For the past five and a half years — since the December 2012 shooting that took 20 students — Graney has been working with Sandy Hook shooting victim Vicki Soto’s family to remove hate speech and harassment from their memorial Facebook page. But as conspiracy theories surrounding the shooting grew, the pleas from families of the victims to stop the harassment fell on deaf ears in the tech community.
When Graney started working with the Soto family in the months after the attack to deal with trolls and Sandy Hook hoaxers on their memorial Facebook page for the murdered teacher, there were about 150 fake pages for Soto. Plus, the conspiracy theory that the shooting — as well as Soto's death — hadn’t actually happened had started to take hold.
“It was a constant cycle of reporting and you just had to report everything over and over and over and over and over again until Facebook decided that it violated their terms of service, or that post violated their terms of service,” the 36-year-old Nashville resident says in an interview with Bustle.
Graney — who works in media but declines to talk about her outside work — reached out to the family to help manage the memorial page because she had seen the family on TV. Soto's mother had put a plea on Facebook for help dealing with the huge influx of messages, and Graney had experience with social media. "I just saw someone that I had seen on TV crying needing help," Graney tells Bustle.
Those conspiracy theories and number of messages grew larger and larger because of InfoWars, an alt-right conspiracy website started by Jones in 1999. While his following has increased in recent years (he had 2.4 million YouTube subscribers before his account was taken down), Jones' conspiracy theories gained steam after the Sandy Hook shooting.
And last week, Jones started being taken offline. On Thursday, internet-radio provider Stitcher announced it was removing Jones and InfoWars from their platforms, according to BillBoard. By Sunday, Apple announced Jones would no longer be hosted on its widely used Podcasts app. Spotify, Facebook, and YouTube’s own removals followed.
"Alex Jones getting removed is amazing. Other people can't be inspired by what he posts right now, so they can't make additional videos," Graney says. "But that YouTube page ... I can't believe it took this long to get it pulled down because it repeatedly violated YouTube's terms of service."
Graney says she believed YouTube caved because so many other tech platforms had already removed Jones's content. She says if you want to help, you should report those terrible comments — not just scroll by. It's crucial to remember that there are real people being targeted by those comments and posts.
But reporting the comments is only the first step. Graney says her experience over the last five years with the Soto's memorial page has taught her that there needs to be a human point-of-contact at companies like Facebook. "There was no one on the other end that we could physically talk to explain how it's not OK for someone to be posting pictures of Vicki’s younger sibling,” Graney says. (A photo of Soto’s younger sister Carlee on the phone crying is frequently posted by people who believe Sandy Hook is a hoax, according to Graney. In 2015, Carlee suffered sustained harassment on Instagram as well.)
Graney tells Bustle that companies need to remember that real lives are being affected when they allow this kind of harassment to flourish.
"I need people to know and understand that there are real humans who are really hurting at the other end of those photos," Graney tells Bustle in an email. "The conspiracy theorists or the hoaxers think that they are posting an innocent picture, but the real person in that picture is deeply affected by what they say and what they post."