Twitter Stands Alone and Earns My Respect

Twitter-TrollTwitter is being criticized for not deplatforming Alex Jones, and the enemies of free speech are up in arms. Vox claims Twitter’s stance on Infowars’ Alex Jones should be a moment of reckoning for users, and that the site [is] “choosing the wrong path”.

In response to continued calls for Twitter to ban Jones from the site, [Twitter CEO Jack] 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.”

This is a very intelligent thing to do. If sites discriminate against content based on their own political views, they risk being seen by the courts as responsible for the content that they allow their users to publish. Alternatively, if they apply their policies fairly, they can claim to be common carriers, like the telephone company, and therefore not be held responsible for what people say on their medium.

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.

It wasn’t the public that lobbied for Jones ouster. Rather, it was the establishment media companies that compete against him. Certainly Twitter could have found an excuse to bar him; he does say some outrageous things. Perhaps they’ve come to realize that, if they start banning people who’s opinions they disagree with, they risk driving people away from their platform.

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.

Not silencing someone when they haven’t violated your rules is amoral and regressive? Clearly the opposite is true. It means that Twitter is standing upon the principle of free speech. If Jones breaks the law by inciting violence, he can be arrested. If he slanders someone, they can sue him in the courts. If Twitter bans him, the next person who is slandered on Twitter can sue Twitter for not banning their slanderer.

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.

Good for him. If he bans Jones, who will the mob call on him to ban next? Where will it end?

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.

If Facebook was smart, they too would avoid being held responsible for the content they serve. They are playing a dangerous game. There is no way that Facebook can police the posts of every one of their subscribers. If the courts hold the company responsible, they could be sued into non-existence.

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.

As Dorsey said in one of his tweets, they have been terrible at explaining their reasoning for banning users in the past. Maybe they have always had a consistent standard, or maybe they’ve realized that not having one is too dangerous to the company.

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.

All of Twitter’s actions that show favor to one political viewpoint over another were not progress. If issues are inherently politicized, hands-off (unless there is a clear violation of a well defined and consistently applied policy) seems like a wise idea.

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.

Unless he is engaged in inciting violence, it is not a moral issue. This is why the government is prohibited from infringing on people’s freedom of speech. Given that it is an aesthetic choice, not a moral one, applying it consistently is important. I’m sure none of the social media companies are eager to have the FCC take an interest in regulating them.

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.

Twitter is not responsible for what Jones does off their platform, and Jones is not responsible for what his listeners do. Jones has millions of listeners. How could he possibly control what they do?

Jones 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.

Did he do so on Twitter? If he did, did doing so have violated their terms of service?

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.”

Clearly he meant “take down” in the political sense. Mueller is fair game for criticism, and I’m sure he isn’t worried about Jones actually taking him down physically.

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.

Twitter is not responsible for anything Jones does on other platforms. If he hasn’t violated their policies on their platform, they are right to leave his account up. If he violates their policies in future, they can take him down with cause.

This is in direct contrast to the actions it’s taken in the recent past. Though Twitter has been utterly inconsistent — okay, more like whiplashinducing — 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.

Alex Jones is not affiliated with a hate group. He is a libertarian leaning constitutionalist Trump supporter. He has some very odd ideas, plays a very inflammatory character while online, and has a massive following. He is not Richard Spencer. He is not David Duke.

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.

Infowars was not a nexus of hate speech. If Twitter had taken down Infowars, and were then sued by a conservative because they were subject to “hate speech” from a progressive user, the court might decide that Twitter had taken editorial control of their platform by banning Jones and was therefore responsible for comments made by all of their users.

This suggests that political viewpoints and unsourced lies made up for political reasons are the same thing. They are not.

CNN and MSNBC (and doubtless Fox New) makes up unsourced lies for political reasons all the time. If Twitter were to ban all speculative statements, who would be left on the platform?

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.

As Dorsey correctly said, it is the media’s job to counter misinformation, not Twitter’s. I must say, the media does a fairly piss poor job of it.

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.

This goes way past Jones’s followers. Nearly the entirety of the alternate media is discussing how Apple, Google, and Facebook colluded to unperson Jones. Guarding against the distortion of reality is suppose to be the media’s job. Stop whining and get to work.

And then there’s the issue of Dorsey’s attempt to leave the policing of reality in the hands of journalists and usersrather 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.

It doesn’t reject it, it supports it.

As pundit Jon Lovett noted, it also sounds like a recipe for the Twitter experience to become absolutely miserable.

A Twitter that bans people for wrong think sounds more miserable.

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.
She claims that Jones personally harrassed the parents. While I understand that his conspiracy theory was unpleasant, and that his fans may have harassed them, I don’t think it’s fair to hold Jones responsible for their actions. We’ll see what the court says.

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.

Treating all users consistently will positively impact Twitter’s culture.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media, said “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.”

Exactly.

“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 continued.

So social media was a bad idea because it reveals that there are people with opinions that are different from yours? Sabotage and pollution? What if someone calls your opinion pollution (I would). Should you be banned? The lack of self awareness is mind boggling.

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.

Maybe Twitter have learned that you can’t please some people. There is an expression in the #comicsgate community: “Get woke, go broke”. You can have a platform that keeps the vocal minority happy, or you can have a platform that anyone is allowed to use that upsets the vocal minority. It seems that you can’t have both.

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.
This is a blatant falsehood. Milo Yiannopolous was banned. Just because there are things that you find morally reprehensible doesn’t mean that they are. If Twitter threw Jones off because they disagreed with his opinion, even though he hadn’t violated one of their policies, I’d find that reprehensible.

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.

When you call everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders a Nazi, you aren’t leaving Twitter much of a user base. Maybe they’ve done the math and realized that the number of people who want a platform that allows any point of view as long as its standards are respected is much larger than the number of people who would be left on Twitter if they banned everyone that was labelled a Nazi.

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.

If you banned every new agency that has made false claims, there would be none left. Vox would be one of the first to go.

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.

That is not true of all of Jones’s reporting. He is the modern equivalent of the tabloids. If he says something you disagree with, call him on it. If you think he has slandered you, sue him. If you think he’s inciting violence, call the police.

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.

Kudos to Twitter and Jack Dorsey. I hope they have finally learned the lesson that being partisan will make them lose in the end. Napster was taken down by the music industry. Facebook and YouTube will have only themselves to blame when their users leave for platforms willing to take a stand for legal free speech.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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