Twitter and Periscope—the latter owned by the former—are the last two major social media platforms that have yet to ban Alex Jones. “We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or Infowars,” Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey tweeted a day after YouTube, Facebook, and Spotify all banned Jones from their platforms. “He hasn’t violated our rules,” Dorsey concluded. CNN cross-referenced Jones’s tweets against Twitter’s rules and quickly proved Dorsey wrong, rendering his hesitation to ban the prominent right-wing conspiracy theorist all the more humiliating and bizarre.
In the past week, Dorsey has embarked on a press tour to explain his outlook on Twitter’s role in U.S. civic life, now overrun with alt-right goons and chaos merchants, such as Jones. So far, Dorsey’s answers have been more demoralizing than enlightening. He’s only managed to underscore his industry’s fundamental reluctance to take greater responsibility for the user content—including violent rhetorical and political mobilization among hateful, extremist factions—on their platforms.
Facebook is the biggest website by all metrics, but Twitter is the beating heart of online activism and discourse. The company’s liberal critics regard Twitter as a sandbox for alt-right mobilization, harassment campaigns, and disinformation. The complaints predate President Donald Trump’s political career and the rise of the alt-right, but the criticism’s urgency peaked with postelection calls for Twitter to ban its most notorious power user, Trump himself. The president aside, Twitter hosts a variety of right-wing luminaries, including white nationalists such as David Duke and volatile conspiracy theorists such as Jones. Alternatively, Twitter’s critics on the right have interpreted calls to suppress neo-Nazi agitation on Twitter as a broader mandate to suppress conservative thought. In a recent CNN interview, Dorsey characterized Twitter’s staff as “more left-leaning,” and conservative activists quickly seized upon the characterization to suggest a content moderation bias against their accounts. Thus, banning prominent right-wing trolls like Jones risks turning them into martyrs.
It’s happened before, though the martyrdom and backlash have proved ephemeral. In July 2016, Twitter banned Milo Yiannopoulos—a “dangerous” troll by trade—for leading a harassment campaign, chock full of epithets and threats, against Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones. Milo’s terminal infraction resembled the earlier case of Chuck Johnson, another right-wing troll who Twitter banned only after he threatened to “take out” the prominent civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson. Seemingly, a theme emerged: Twitter will ban a prominent troll if, and only if, they harass another prominent user. Of course, Dorsey would insist that the operative distinction isn’t the prominence, but the harassment. In his current press run, Dorsey has described Twitter’s outlook on content moderation as a matter of bad behavior, not to be confused with bad ideas. “We do not look at content with regard to political content or ideology,” Dorsey told CNN’s Brian Stelter. “We look at behavior.” So Dorsey posits a mythical framework in which it’s possible to disentangle neo-Nazi rhetoric from neo-Nazi mobilization. But the two concerns are necessarily coupled, and so Dorsey’s distinction between ideas and behavior—between Alex Jones publishing antagonistic conspiracy theories about school-shooting victims and Alex Jones stoking harassment of the survivors—defies reality. At best, Dorsey’s being naive and succumbing to political manipulation that’s also engulfed Facebook and YouTube. At worst, his hedging suggests a deliberate, conspicuous effort to protect Jones and other right-wing figures in his orbit.
Dorsey is an inscrutable figure. His “left-leaning” colleagues aside, his own politics are a mystery. Occasionally, Dorsey’s critics will infer some affiliations based on who he follows, like the Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich. But publicly, Dorsey doesn’t articulate any sympathy for any major political movement, including the alt-right. He’s nonpartisan in the classic Silicon Valley sense: His politics are pure, reflexive capitulation to extremist charlatans who distort and exploit concerns about free speech. When Dorsey does address native political controversies on behalf of Twitter, he tends to stall, indefinitely, for time. He’s working on it. He’s considering changes that never materialize. Indeed, the major social media services form an irreconcilable state of ambivalence, freezing as U.S. civic life confronts a blue screen of death.
Twitter is hardly the only social media company to moderate its platform in a sporadic, disastrous manner that encourages right-wing trolls to exploit perceptions of unfairness. For the past few years, Facebook has struggled with its own efforts to curate, and moderate, a News Feed filled with partisan concerns and fake news. Facebook’s mismanagement of those concerns, and its misappropriation of user permissions, got Mark Zuckerberg dragged before Congress to explain the various political forces—Russian hackers, right-wing conspiracy theorists—that have wrecked and exploited his platform. It’s not as if Facebook is entirely lax and laissez-faire. Facebook and Instagram (the latter owned by the former) aggressively police their platforms for disturbing images, including nudity. YouTube polices “nudity or sexual content” as well as copyright infringement.
In contrast, Twitter barely bothers to moderate this sort of content. There’s porn and copyright infringement all over Twitter. It is the social media service that has always seemed least inclined, and least equipped, to moderate hate speech, including alt-right activism, with any real urgency or consistency. The company’s U.S. critics often cite the key foreign counterexample: In Germany, a country with less than one-tenth of Twitter’s U.S. user base, federal law requires the company to weed out hate speech, including Nazi imagery. In lieu of a similar mandate from the U.S. government, Twitter errs on the side of inaction, apparently afraid to provoke a terminal political crisis in its largest market, which also happens to be its home market, governed, as it is, by a president who embodies all the infractions worth banning.
So disgruntled U.S. users are left to discern what Dorsey, and his peers, might be working on to solve an immutable discontent. In his CNN interview, Dorsey plaintively describes Twitter’s occasional efforts to moderate hate speech and disinformation as Whac-a-Mole. Dorsey sounds no more confident in Twitter’s outlook than the service’s right-wing opponents, and so it seems as though Twitter isn’t built to sustain the level of political engagement that it’s cultivated for the past decade. There are competitors, of course, but there’s nothing quite like Twitter—a service that empowered a new generation of activists, journalists, and artists only to sacrifice itself to the opponents of so many civic virtues. Including, ironically, free speech.