Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey issued a jarring counterargument Tuesday night to the recent wave of backlash against far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his broadcast network Infowars.
In response to continued calls for Twitter to ban Jones from the site, Dorsey bluntly explained why Twitter has not joined Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and many other companies in barring Jones for disseminating hate speech, among other things. In a lengthy thread, Dorsey not only maintained that Jones has not violated any of Twitter’s policies but framed the backlash against Jones as “political” and suggested that it’s up to the news media, not Twitter staff, to police accounts like Jones’s that “sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors.”
It’s a sobering read — but much more for what it says about Twitter than for what it says about Jones.
Jones is currently facing a precedent-setting lawsuit brought by the parents of a child who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, who’ve experienced years of harassment due to a conspiracy theory Jones popularized which argues that the shooting never happened and that the victims’ parents are “crisis actors.” In response to growing public contempt of him, Apple, Facebook, Spotify, YouTube, Stitcher, and even Pinterest and MailChimp have all summarily banned Jones and Infowars from their platforms, citing various violations of their content policies ranging from child endangerment to harassment.
Jones’s collective ouster has left him with only one major online refuge: Twitter, where he has 800,000 followers. Twitter, however, has taken a strikingly different — and hands-off —approach to mitigating Jones and his content.
This response is breathtakingly amoral, as well as regressive, terrible decision-making — for Twitter, for the internet, for all of us. It should be a moment of reckoning for everyone who uses Twitter. Let’s break down why.
Dorsey’s statement is a startling attempt to frame Twitter as an apolitical neutral party
In Dorsey’s thread, which immediately drew intense backlash, he effectively stated that Twitter will not get involved in “political” debates, and that it’s up to the news media and other users, not social media companies, to police accounts like Jones’s.
We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or Infowars yesterday. We know that’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules. We’ll enforce if he does. And we’ll continue to promote a healthy conversational environment by ensuring tweets aren’t artificially amplified.
— jack (@jack) August 8, 2018
In addition to Dorsey’s thread, Twitter’s Safety team issued its own lengthy statementattempting to clarify the site’s content policies and how they do or do not apply with regard to Jones. Most significant was its assertion that Twitter cannot be “the arbiter of truth” around what is and isn’t false information.
As we have stated publicly, we strongly believe Twitter should not be the arbiter of truth nor do we have scalable solutions to determine and action what’s true or false.
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) August 7, 2018
This is all a lot to unpack, and it touches on many aspects of the cultural conversation that has centered on social media, and Twitter specifically, over the past two years — including the proliferation of fake news, Twitter’s lackluster attempts to “ban the Nazis,” and the question of whether sites like Twitter and Facebook are publishers who are ethically responsible for the content they serve readers.
But above all, Dorsey’s and Twitter’s statements seem to be a striking reversal of the site’s previous progress. The company’s approach to disruptive elements and abusive users ranging from run-of-the-mill trolls to well-established hate groups has always been haphazard and inconsistent at best. But until now, the company has at least presented itself as generally committed to fighting the good fight in quashing those elements on the site.
What’s most jarring — and disturbing — about Dorsey’s statement is its latent suggestion that all of Twitter’s progress has been a mistake. Instead, it seems to insist that the better approach should be a hands-off one, which pretends the major issues the website faces in 2018 are not inherently and irreparably politicized.
In essence, Twitter is choosing to treat the question of whether Alex Jones’s presence on the site is harmful as an issue of semantics rather than an issue of morality.
Twitter is actively choosing to ignore Jones’s long history of hate and harassment
Jones and Infowars’ content is built around far-right extremism and conspiracy theories. His shows are frequently loaded with Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and sexism. Many of Jones’s followers take his words very seriously, and they often respond by harassing his perceived enemies, on and off the internet.
The parents of Noah Pozner, a 6-year-old killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, have had to move seven times in five years in an attempt to evade harassment from people who believe the shooting never happened. Jones also propagated the 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy, which culminated in a man invading a Washington, DC, pizza joint with an AR-15 assault rifle because he believed Hillary Clinton had organized a pedophilia ring there.
And apart from the dangerous real-life harassment that has arisen as a consequence of Jones’s broadcasts, there’s the harassment that Jones initiates himself. Less than two weeks ago, Jones appeared to threaten FBI special counsel Robert Mueller during a broadcast of The Alex Jones Show, saying Mueller was “a demon I will take down, or I’ll die trying. … It’s not a joke. It’s not a game. It’s the real world. Politically. You’re going to get it, or I’m going to die trying, bitch.”
In short, Jones’s platform is a well-established conduit for hate and harassment. Ignoring that fact is disingenuous, and in doing so, Twitter is suggesting it would rather profit from Jones — by being the only major internet platform to continue to host him, thus gaining a chance to draw new users and combat its extremely flat user growth — than treat Jones as a disruptive and dangerous figure.
This is in direct contrast to the actions it’s taken in the recent past. Though Twitter has been utterly inconsistent — okay, more like whiplash–inducing — in confronting multiple leading alt-right and white supremacist figures on its platforms, we have plenty of examples of Twitter dealing with members belonging to or affiliated with hate groups. Less than a year ago, it even established a clear precedent for how to deal with hate groups and individuals affiliating themselves with such groups — a process that included looking at their behavior both on and offline.
Twitter could easily choose to frame Infowars as a nexus of hate speech, in which case it would have a clear reason to ban Jones and his networks. Instead, it has chosen to ignore the harm Jones has done, off platform, on platform, and in the real world.