RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
YouTube is locked in a battle over free speech rights. Last Thursday, the company banned far-right activist Jerome Corsi from their site for just a few hours. He is the Washington, D.C., bureau chief of Infowars, which is headed by prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. When Corsi got his access back to YouTube, he used the opportunity to rail against the company. Corsi's among those on the far-right fringe claiming that YouTube is engaging in a concerted effort to censor him. NPR's Aarti Shahani's been following this. And she joins us now.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.
MARTIN: Can you just back up and tell us how this standoff got started in the first place?
SHAHANI: Sure. So after the Parkland shooting, Infowars and a few other far-right outlets started suggesting, falsely, that one of the survivors, a young man speaking out against the NRA, that he's just an actor and he was stumbling around for words because he forgot his lines. One of these videos even made it into YouTube's trending list. Now, YouTube - it's a private network. It's owned by Google. And it doesn't claim to be an open platform for free speech. You know, one of the policies is you're not allowed to shame or attack victims after a violent incident. So the company basically sends out their version of a cease-and-desist notice. And on Thursday, the channel Jerome Corsi was running got taken down.
MARTIN: And so what reason did they give, that he was violating the specific terms of YouTube?
SHAHANI: Well, so YouTube, he says, didn't give him a stated reason. It was just their whim. And a YouTube spokesperson says that the company made a mistake, and it's because they've hired so many new people in the last few months to help them sort through videos and enforce the community standards that, you know, newbies are still learning what's OK and what's not OK and they got it wrong and also points out Corsi appealed and got his account restored that same day Thursday.
You know, what I point out, though, is how much of a mixed message there is here. On the one hand, leaders at Google, YouTube's parent company, strongly support free speech. But then YouTube itself, just like Facebook, is defining and taking down content that's considered extremist or harassment. And those can be very subjective things left in the hands of a private company to define.
MARTIN: But according to this guy, Corsi, he's accusing YouTube and other tech platforms of being organizations that are, essentially, run by a bunch of liberals who want to target people like him on the far-right fringe. Is there any truth to that?
SHAHANI: There's anecdotal evidence of it, OK? There's his case. A couple weeks back, Twitter did a bot purge that included right-wing accounts. After Charlottesville, white supremacist Andrew Anglin got his website taken down. But all that said, Corsi is being far from forthcoming when it comes to what's really going on. Right after his account was restored - actually, over the weekend - he went on YouTube and gave an hour-long sermon lecture about, you know, what his takedown means. Have a listen to how he frames it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEROME CORSI: The left has a full right to have its points argued. But the intolerance, the wanting to destroy conservatives - please give us the same courtesy of being able to express our views. And please, if your arguments on the left are stronger, defeat our arguments on the right.
MARTIN: So sort of classic tropes in arguments about American free speech here.
SHAHANI: Classic First Amendment - you know, debate and let the truth rise to the top in the marketplace of ideas. Only problem is, Infowars is producing a marketplace of fake news, a fact that he omits. And one way YouTube could handle this is rather than deciding what's real or fake and knocking him off, they could, like Google search, just push up to the top of their trending things that are trusted sources. That wouldn't have turned Corsi, then, into a hero among the far-right.
MARTIN: NPR's Aarti Shahani. Aarti, thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us.
SHAHANI: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.