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
Truth is we’ve been terrible at explaining our decisions in the past. We’re fixing that. We’re going to hold Jones to the same standard we hold to every account, not taking one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories.— jack (@jack) August 8, 2018
If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction. That’s not us.— jack (@jack) August 8, 2018
Accounts like Jones' can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best.— jack (@jack) August 8, 2018
In addition to Dorsey’s thread, Twitter’s Safety team issued its own lengthy statement attempting 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.
By framing the backlash against Jones as solely political, Twitter is washing its hands of the fight against fake news and fake reality
If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction.
This suggests that political viewpoints and unsourced lies made up for political reasons are the same thing. They are not.
No one should need to explain this, let alone in response to the CEO of Twitter, but not all conservative thinkers are conspiracists. What’s more, there are endless reasons to fight against Jones’s warped version of reality, which is built on lie after lie, that have nothing to do with politics.
Even more disturbing is that Dorsey and Twitter are trying to frame the site’s position as a principled one — as a morally upright stance it is adopting to avoid “taking one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories.” The idea here seems to be that if Twitter bans Jones in haste, it would give credence to his followers’ already pervasive paranoia. But a) that’s bullshit — you don’t create two conspiracies by stamping one out; and b) guarding against the distortion of reality is not a political agenda, and to suggest otherwise is incredibly dangerous.
And then there’s the issue of Dorsey’s attempt to leave the policing of reality in the hands of journalists and users rather than Twitter staff. As multiple journalists have already noted, that idea rejects all the work that professional journalists do daily to combat unsourced lies and fake news — precisely so that companies like Twitter can respond to and act on their information.
As pundit Jon Lovett noted, it also sounds like a recipe for the Twitter experience to become absolutely miserable.
You know @jack, I like twitter. It’s addicting and can be harmful. But I see the good in it. You say it’s up to us to police the endless malicious lies of your worst users. OK. Does that sound fun? Does that sound like a place people will want to spend their time?— Jon Lovett (@jonlovett) August 8, 2018
And as journalist Caroline Moss made abundantly clear, individual Twitter users can’t police reality against people who are determined to disbelieve anything they say in its defense.
It should be noted that Dorsey’s response doesn’t just consign everyone who uses Twitter to having to deal with Jones and people like Jones; it consigns them to deal with the spread of fake news across the platform. And given that fake news travels faster than real news on Twitter, any policy decision that involves the company choosing not to fight that spread could deeply impact Twitter culture.
We can no longer pretend Twitter isn’t amoral
Earlier this week, Siva Vaidhyanathan, the author of Antisocial Media, gave an interview that seems deeply prophetic just days later. Asked what we can do to combat “misinformation and lies and hate speech on our social media platforms,” he responded, “nothing”:
There is nothing “we” can do, as in you and me, and nothing that Twitter or Facebook would do to fix the situation for two reasons. One, anything that would effectively cleanse Facebook and Twitter of harmful material would put such a heavy burden on what are fairly small staffs [relative to the companies’ size] and violate their core founding principles ... One, to provide everyone a voice, and two, to remain neutral between contested positions.
This problem [of hate speech online] — and that’s too light a word — reveals that social media was a bad idea in the first place, and there really is no fixing it! If we want social media as it’s been imagined and constructed, we have to live with this garbage. And we have to accept that Facebook and Twitter will be vulnerable to sabotage and pollution as long as we have it.
Vaidhyanathan went on to say that if we want Twitter to make meaningful changes, we must communicate that in the classic way — by “sham[ing] its advertisers” and “limit[ing] its distribution.” In response to Dorsey on Tuesday night, it seemed some Twitter users were already taking this approach:
#Twitter is a private company and it’s 100% your choice whether or not to enforce your rules against targeted abuse (which Infowars violates). Just like it’s our choice as private consumers whether or not to boycott all your fucking advertisors. #Twitler pic.twitter.com/GPYu4oL6DG— ÆMarling (@AEMarling) August 8, 2018
In effect, Twitter is at a moral crossroads — and choosing the wrong path. The choice to allow Jones and his rhetoric to remain active on the platform suggests that there is no point at which a situation will become morally reprehensible enough for the company to take a stand.
Anyone who’s followed Twitter’s actions in the past two years can easily see how the site has walked a very thin ethical line during Donald Trump’s presidency, one that allows it to pay court to racists and fascists while occasionally appeasing those who protest. And that’s an appalling, unacceptable truth, but it’s one that many of us have generally come to accept and expect — probably because we simply lack the stamina to be as perpetually outraged as we should by the fact that we have to share so much of the world with actual Nazis.
But Jones represents what is perhaps the clearest opportunity to draw a moral line that Twitter will ever have. Forget the Nazis for a second; Alex Jones is a man who has seen his followers harass the parents of dead 6-year-olds and continued to egg them on, using the completely fabricated claim that these parents’ grief is just an act.
There is nothing redeemable here; there’s no useful idea, no political concept worth debating — there’s only a lie told purely in order to spread harm, confusion, disorder, and pain.
Jones is sound and fury, signifying nothing. Twitter’s choice to defend his place on its site, however, signifies everything about what Twitter is choosing to be.
Vox has contacted Twitter for comment but has not received a response.