The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Roku gave Infowars a platform reaching millions. After hours of outrage, it backed down.

Alex Jones was a powerful underground voice for the alternative conservative media, but he became a more mainstream figure in December 2015. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Manuel Roig-Franzia/The Washington Post)

At his parents' home in Clarksville, Md., on Monday night, Daniel Madison and his brother were itching to see “Fyre Fraud,” the new Hulu documentary on the glorious failure of the 2017 music festival. So they set up a Roku player to stream it. But when he turned on the device, he could not believe what he was seeing: Infowars, the far-right conspiracy website founded by Alex Jones, which months earlier had been banned by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Apple, was available to stream on Roku for its nearly 24 million registered users.

“We were both shocked when we saw the app in the lineup,” Madison, 40, told The Washington Post on Tuesday. He knew Jones had been booted from most other major platforms for propagating conspiracy theories targeting the families of the Sandy Hook school shooting, which Infowars has called a hoax. “We were pretty grossed out,” he said.

Madison wasn’t the only one disgusted. By Tuesday, the mass discontent on social media, which was first reported by Digiday, bubbled over into a trending hashtag — #boycottroku. Some threatened to walk away from the product altogether. Roku even heard from lawyers representing the families of Sandy Hook victims, who say they continue to be threatened and harassed thanks to the Infowars-spread conspiracy theory that the 2012 massacre that killed 27 people, including 20 children, didn’t happen.

By Tuesday night, Roku announced it, too, was banning Infowars.

Roku became the latest platform to drop Infowars, joining other media companies, including Spotify, Periscope and even YouPorn, to have bid farewell to Jones in the past year. Roku’s change of heart comes during a high period, when the company is projecting to have generated $293 million in U.S. ad revenue last year, according to eMarketer, up 93 percent from 2017.

Jones has yet to publicly respond to Roku’s about-face, but he shared a cryptic post to his Instagram account on Tuesday night. The post, a Saturday tweet from Infowars reporter Owen Shroyer, featured an artistic banner of Jones’s face looking enraged. “Strike me down now and I only become more powerful,” Shroyer wrote.

Roku’s decision came amid waves of complaints on Twitter, including from Madison. Hoping for an explanation after finding Infowars on his Roku — a digital media player that houses services such as Netflix, Hulu, Sling and YouTube — Madison tweeted at Roku Support around 8 p.m. Monday to see if the platform knew the channel was being offered. After receiving an automated reply about 10 minutes later, Madison reached out to Sleeping Giants, a Twitter account with a following of more than 200,000 users aimed at making “bigotry and racism less profitable” by encouraging people to pressure brands that feature questionable content.

Sleeping Giants tweeted at Roku, asking whether it could confirm that it had an Infowars channel. The Twitter account has previously targeted other platforms that featured Jones, in addition to spearheading social-media efforts directed at advertisers of conservative commentators Bill O’Reilly and Laura Ingraham.

Online activists hit hatemongers like Alex Jones where it hurts the most — in the wallet

“And the rest kind of snowballed from there,” said Madison, who is pursuing his teaching degree.

Amid the social-media avalanche that came from the news on Tuesday morning, Roku initially defended its decision to host Infowars. CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that Infowars had previously been available on Roku, but that a newly updated app drew attention from more users such as Madison.

“We do not curate or censor based on viewpoint,” Roku said in its initial statement following the Digiday article. “We are not promoting or being paid to distribute Infowars. We do not have any commercial or advertising relationship with Infowars.”

The company added that its policies prohibited content that’s “unlawful, incites illegal activities or violates third-party rights” and that any channel that violated the rules would be removed. “To our knowledge, Infowars is not currently in violation of these content policies,” the company said.

That stance would soon change as Roku users questioned how Infowars got there in the first place.

What might have been the final push, however, came from the lawyers representing the families of the Sandy Hook victims who are suing Jones. Last week, a Connecticut judge ruled those families can review Infowars’ internal marketing and financial documents. The families accuse Infowars of profiting from paranoia to sell more products to Jones’s followers, according to the complaint.

“There is no amount of anticipated revenue that could possibly justify Roku’s calculated decision,” attorney Josh Koskoff said in a statement to the media. Mark Bankston, another lawyer for Sandy Hook families, described Roku as “indifferent to the suffering caused by Mr. Jones’s continued onslaught of cruelty and reckless lies.”

At around 8.p.m. Tuesday, the platform officially dropped Infowars.

For now, Infowars, or Jones, can still reach his followers through a handful of mainstream platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat and Google Play. Jones continues to fight the Sandy Hook lawsuit and decry the ongoing campaign to oust him from Web platforms.

For Madison, Roku’s decision to drop Infowars comes as a relief. He was considering ditching Roku until the company said it would delete Jones’s program. If he had the chance to talk to the Roku executives, he said he would tell them that he is disappointed they would ever think that carrying Infowars and Jones’s views was acceptable.

“I’m glad they deleted it, but they shouldn’t have to have been shamed into it,” Madison said. “It’s not a hard call.”

More from Morning Mix:

A cow escaped the rodeo and disappeared into an Anchorage park. For 6 months, no one has been able to catch her.

An 87-year-old’s obituary said Trump ‘hastened’ her death. A local paper wouldn’t run it.

Kirsten Gillibrand wants to harness the power of women. Her ‘spark plug’ grandmother showed her how.