By not banning Alex Jones, Twitter is making a political choiceAugust 8, 2018
Infowars host Alex Jones is being banished from the internet — well, sort of. Over the past few days, Apple, Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, and Pinterest have all curtailed Jones’ presence to one extent or another. Even YouPorn banned the 44-year-old conspiracy theorist and right-wing carnival barker from its platform. (I envy the time before I knew that there was Alex Jones-related content on YouPorn, but I digress.)
But the Infowarriors of the world have no reason to fear: Jones’ presence on Twitter seems plenty safe for the foreseeable future. Why? Because that’s just what the company is — or at least what it is today.
“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,” wrote Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Tuesday night, kicking off a string of tweets that have been met with yet another wave of frustrated criticism from journalists and marginalized users. “We’ll enforce if he does. And we’ll continue to promote a healthy conversational environment by ensuring tweets aren’t artificially amplified.”
Discussions about what constitutes bannable content on social platforms are often framed in the context of the United States Constitution. Those who support the content in question will usually make an argument similar to what Jones wrote on Monday on Twitter: “The censorship of Infowars just vindicates everything we’ve been saying. Now, who will stand against Tyranny and who will stand for free speech? We’re all Alex Jones now.” Those opposed to this will, rightly, respond by saying that social platforms aren’t run by the government and therefore cannot infringe on one’s constitutionally protected free speech. We know how this goes. It’s happened countless times before, and it’ll happen over and over for years to come. But perhaps we’re thinking about the issue all wrong.
Social media platforms regularly try to frame themselves as apolitical, at least in the sense of US politics, but it’s not that simple. Each platform comes with its own rules and Terms of Service. In a sense, these are political documents of their own: miniaturized corporate constitutions that can be amended over time to fit the needs of shareholders and users. Twitter is not Facebook any more than the United States is Canada. Just as countries are their governing documents, so are companies in relation to their Terms of Service. Twitter’s problem is that it’s never really stuck to a guide or agreed on how to enforce it.
In February 2015, Twitter’s then-CEO Dick Costolo addressed harassment, one of the platform’s biggest problems, saying, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.” The statement inspired some hope that the problem would finally be taken seriously and the harassment free-for-all might finally come to an end. Instead, it got much worse.
Four months later, Costolo stepped down as CEO — coincidentally, just five days before the platform’s most notorious user, Donald Trump, would announce his run for president. Dorsey, who originally held the position until 2008, took his place. It was a move that signaled a return to the laissez-faire roots of a company that once represented itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party.” That October, Dorsey tweeted, “Twitter stands for freedom of expression. We stand for speaking truth to power. And we stand for empowering dialogue.”
To this day, the company’s Terms of Service echo Dorsey’s own persistent view, reading in part:
“We do not endorse, support, represent or guarantee the completeness, truthfulness, accuracy, or reliability of any Content or communications posted via the Services or endorse any opinions expressed via the Services. You understand that by using the Services, you may be exposed to Content that might be offensive, harmful, inaccurate or otherwise inappropriate, or in some cases, postings that have been mislabeled or are otherwise deceptive.”
If Twitter just leaned into those libertarian tendencies, perhaps the company wouldn’t be such a source of frustration for so many of its core users. On one hand, the company emphasizes the importance of dialogue without defining what constitutes (healthy) dialogue; on the other, it continues to pay lip service to people who are critical of its approach to harassment.
There’s a lot of dissonance between the two approaches. For instance, the company’s “hateful conduct policy” prohibits users from engaging in targeted harassment, making unwanted sexual advances, or harassing others on the basis of “race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” But take a quick glance at Twitter, and you’ll find no shortage of accounts promoting racist, homophobic, transphobic, or Islamophobic content, which are all seemingly clear violations of the site’s own policies. But should you actually report the tweets and accounts that are promoting those views, you’ll no doubt receive your fair share of notices informing you that, actually, none of the company’s policies were violated.
It’s no wonder that there’s so much confusion about whether Alex Jones and Infowars belong on the platform given how opaque the company is about its own policies and haphazard enforcement of them. Reading through the rules as they’re laid out on the company’s website, it feels as though those documents are less actual guidelines of governance and more just a collection of vague ideas held together with masking tape and chewing gum. Perhaps it’s time for the company to call something of a corporate constitutional convention, delete the entire document, and start fresh with a clear purpose — and the will to enforce it.
As it stands, Twitter acts the way you might expect an external litigator in search of a legal loophole would, despite having written the laws itself. Dorsey tweets that he’s simply holding Jones to the same standards as every other user, but the company very clearly doesn’t apply its rules evenly. When people pointed to the way Trump would flout the platform’s rules with personal attacks, the company issued a statement explaining that the rules the rest of us are expected to follow don’t concern him because of his status as a world leader. While many companies took the opportunity to ban Jones, using each other for cover — perhaps giving way to a bit of insight into what they’d have done if not for fear of political fallout — Twitter’s inclination seems to lean in the opposite direction: away from a good-faith reading of its own rules.
Now nearing its teens, Twitter continues to struggle with its own identity. Facebook has more or less embraced its role as an info-hungry, hyper-capitalist surveillance state of a company (at nearly 4,200 words, Facebook’s section on data collection is nearly as long as the original US Constitution), YouTube has become an incubator for young conservative radicals, and Reddit and 4chan tend to embody digital anarchy. But Twitter can’t seem to figure out whether it wants to be a libertarian haven, an egalitarian democracy, or something else entirely. If Twitter’s values are really rooted in healthy discourse, why does it consistently ignore threats to it?
Twitter should be defined by its Terms of Service, but it’s currently more accurate to say that Twitter is defined by how it’s enforcing those terms. Dorsey’s preoccupation with appearing apolitical blinds him, and Twitter writ large, to the fact that inaction and selective enforcement are political acts. Whether Alex Jones, Donald Trump, or any number of incendiary voices belong on the platform depends on what Twitter feels like that particular day. For the sake of the company and its user base, I hope it settles on something soon.