It’s been a hard few weeks for Twitter. Following its initial refusal to ban controversial far-right conspiracist Alex Jones and Infowars, the ensuing backlash sent the company scrambling to rethink its policies, as both users and members of its own staff grew frustrated with its seeming inconsistency in enforcing those policies. Eventually, Twitter did suspend Jones and his Infowars accounts — but only temporarily.
In the midst of all of this, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made a flurry of press appearances in an apparent attempt to be transparent about his company’s decision-making, and to explain what’s been happening from his perspective.
None of these interviews give a clear explanation for why Twitter can’t just ban Alex Jones, as it has right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos and numerous hate groups. But they do give us a glimpse at how convoluted and strangely dated Twitter’s decision-making process is — even as the company seems to be striving to enact more convoluted policies it’s not prepared to enforce.
Dorsey’s round of interviews offers a revealing glimpse into his thinking — and how it has (not) evolved with the times
Dorsey has given multiple contradictory explanations for Twitter’s approach to handling Jones, but above all, he’s been consistent on one point: not bowing to public opinion and pressure to act.
On Sunday, in a follow-up to an exclusive report last week on an internal Twitter staff meeting, the New York Times published a brief interview with Dorsey. In it, he responded to a Times opinion piece written by Kara Swisher (who also writes for Vox sister site Recode) that argued that Twitter should be operating from a consistent value system rather than prioritizing free speech. Dorsey’s response to the Times was that the company needs more values.
“She wanted to see values over rules,” Dorsey told the Times. “And I think what is missing in that discussion is that I think it is a false dichotomy. Our rules derived from our original values. I think we might have focused too much on one value without looking more broadly at other values that we should integrate, but also how we should prioritize those values.”
If that all sounds vague and noncommittal, things get weirder from there.
On Wednesday, a preview of an interview Dorsey gave to NBC set tongues wagging about his assertion that putting Jones in “timeout” via a temporary suspension might make the longtime conspiracy theorist rethink his behavior. Dorsey responded on Twitter to one critic of this viewpoint, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel.
I’d argue that this line of thinking from @jack is part of the problem. Jones and others are not normal users. Jones has been doing this for 20+ years (and it’s been very lucrative!). A suspension is not going to make him rethink his behaviors pic.twitter.com/jAaZFItjdt— Charlie Warzel (@cwarzel) August 15, 2018
Dorsey argued that “there will never be a perfect endpoint” in the evolution of Twitter’s content policies and enforcement actions.
We have some evidence to show this does work. It won’t in every case. And we need to constantly evolve our enforcement actions. There will never be a perfect endpoint.— jack (@jack) August 15, 2018
In the fuller version of Dorsey’s NBC interview, which aired Wednesday night, Dorsey insisted that “we hold every account to the same standard, to the same rules,” and that he felt the many other companies that had banned Jones, including Facebook and YouTube, had been inconsistent in their decision-making — which, in fairness to Dorsey, did come after some flip-flopping on the parts of the other platforms. But Dorsey also admitted that “We do sometimes feel like we’re behind the circumstances that are pushing us.”
Finally, also on Wednesday, in an interview with the Hill, Dorsey attempted to put Jones’s suspension-but-not-ban into concrete terms.
“Our model right now relies heavily on people reporting violations and reporting things they find suspicious, and then we can act on it,” he stated. In essence, because people massively reported Jones’s latest incendiary tweets and videos after the backlash, Twitter did something about them. That may seem like a recipe for inconsistency, but Dorsey insisted that Twitter’s goal is to automate this process.
He also insisted this automation will be unbiased and fair. “We want to be open and available and accessible to all perspectives and viewpoints,” he said in the interview. “We don’t want any of our policies or enforcement or products to make decisions based on viewpoints and ideologies.”
While Jones’s account is suspended, Jones obviously can’t post new content for Twitter or his fellow users to respond to. But his previous tweets are still available for public perusal, and his feeds will doubtless continue to come under scrutiny by Twitter users as well as content moderators.
Twitter wants to address “echo chambers”
Dorsey’s answer to Twitter’s consistency problem seems to be to pile on more rules and changes rather than consistently enforcing what rules are already in place. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that in addition to looking into a new policy against “dehumanizing speech,” Twitter is now thinking about trying to “promote alternative viewpoints in Twitter’s timeline to address misinformation and reduce ‘echo chambers.’”
This drew immediate response from frustrated users who pointed out that studies on the “echo chamber” phenomenon suggest that echo chambers on social media are primarily self-selected out of a wish to avoid harassment, challenging of one’s ideals, and other intense conversations. One popular thread argued that attempting to cross-pollinate Twitter’s ideological streams would only increase harassment while fortifying ideological polarization, rather than combating it.
Twitter's plan to discourage echo chambers by having tweets from outside your follower network show up in your feed is a horrendously disastrous idea on its face, but fundamentally does not understand what echo chambers are, how they work, and how they are maintained.— Down With The Slothness (@CaseyExplosion) August 16, 2018
Other Twitter users are doing their best to be heard amid the noise, most notably through a viral blockchain colloquially known as the #block500party. Created by marketing activist Shannon Coulter, the movement makes it easy to mass-block the Twitter accounts of Fortune 500 companies, thereby directly targeting Twitter’s most lucrative potential advertisers in an attempt to get Twitter to ban Jones.
Reminder to all the Fortune 500 executives watching my Tweets right now, the moment Twitter drops Alex Jones, I'll immediately unblock all the companies on the list, which means 70,000+ Twitter highly engaged Twitter users will too. Reach out to your account rep at Twitter today.— Shannon Coulter (@shannoncoulter) August 17, 2018
So far, it hasn’t worked. But that could change at any moment; after all, as Twitter has shown us time and again, its most consistent policy is inconsistency.