Thursday, Twitter permanently banned conspiracy theorist shock jock Alex Jones and his Infowars accounts from its flagship product and from streaming service Periscope. The expulsion came weeks after a controversial temporary suspension, enacted after Jones implored followers to get their “battle rifles” ready to use on the media. It also comes weeks after Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Apple’s podcasts app, Spotify, and other technology platforms had already rid themselves of Jones’s public content, on the grounds of repeated community standards violations for various Jones and Infowars posts. If I were an optimist, I’d say that perhaps we’ll look back on this moment as the time Twitter finally decided to consistently enforce reasonable policies regarding abusive speech.
Today, we permanently suspended @realalexjones and @infowars from Twitter and Periscope. We took this action based on new reports of Tweets and videos posted yesterday that violate our abusive behavior policy, in addition to the accounts’ past violations. https://t.co/gckzUAV8GL— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) September 6, 2018
But I’m not an optimist, at least not about the state of speech on the internet. Twitter’s history of enforcing its own rules is wildly inconsistent, and there’s nothing about Jones’s ban that suggests this is a thoughtful policy swap instead of a response to growing public pressure, or just something company CEO Jack Dorsey decided after looking at Jones’s sweaty face one too many times. In 2016, Twitter banned a British man named Milo Yiannopoulos after he broke its rules by encouraging harassment of comic Leslie Jones. At the time, I thought the Milo ban actually foretold a policy change. Twitter “finally took a real stand against hate,” I wrote. (Ah, lost innocence!) But in the time since that ban, Twitter has failed to enforce a coherent policy around what it does and does not allow. Most infamously, it lets President Trump do whatever he wants, despite his violations of its rules. The company amended its policy on banning harmful speech by creating a special rule to keep Trump around as a user; the company appears to be betting on the Trump bump it gets from being the president’s preferred online pulpit, and assuming that the societal relevance it receives from that position will outweigh opposition to the toxicity it allows.
In August, when its competitors banned Jones, Twitter remained the sole holdout. Dorsey personally insisted that Jones hadn’t violated the company’s rules. “We’ll enforce if he does,” Dorsey tweeted, promising not to “succumb and simply react to outside pressure.” This might have been persuasive if it weren’t so easy to simply go through Jones’s Twitter behavior and point out the many, many times he had, in fact, clearly violated Twitter’s policies, which is what CNN quickly did.
It is probably not coincidental that the permanent ban on Jones comes after a very recent in-person encounter between Dorsey and Jones. Dorsey faced a congressional committee during a hearing about the social network’s policies on Wednesday. Jones attended Dorsey’s testimony and tried to confront Dorsey, as well as anyone else in the vicinity, about how he had been treated by big technology companies. “Alex Jones was allowed to harass Sandy Hook parents for six years with no repercussions,” comedian Nick Jack Pappas wrote on Twitter. “He harassed Jack Dorsey for one day and was banned from Twitter.” Pappas has a point: While Twitter cited recent violations as the reason for the ban, Jones had repeatedly run afoul of Twitter’s rules in the past and had received only what Dorsey himself called a “timeout.” Nothing in particular about the situation had changed … except someone’s heart at Twitter.
The concentration of power among big tech companies to decide what is and is not appropriate speech is a real, concerning issue. It is not unreasonable to believe that antitrust measures are in order; possibly the least offensive argument Jones has ever made is that big tech companies do, in fact, wield too much power. But, of course, acknowledging that the monopolistic grip on communications by companies like Twitter and Facebook is a problem is one thing. Insisting that they allow targeted harassment and language that provokes real-life harm is something else entirely.
This ban will certainly play into Jones’s current favorite conspiracy narrative about big tech “dehumanizing” him, especially since Twitter forfeited any claim to principle by avoiding enforcement of its own rules for so long. The arbitrary crackdown has made it obvious that big tech companies do not operate on coherent principles as much as they do in reaction to backlash. In this way, Twitter brought its Jones problem on itself, and then aggravated it. Still, the ban is a practical victory over online harassment. When Jones was booted from other social networks, he relied on Twitter to rail against his enemies and sic followers on people like the parents of Sandy Hook victims, whom he insisted had lied about their children’s deaths. Now, his reach has been curtailed. When you’re railing against conspiratorial forces, it helps to have a megaphone. Jones’s chances to amplify his messages are finally running out. Of course, it’s still possible to physically type www.infowars.com into a URL bar and listen to Jones from his homepage. But it’s 2018. Who does that anymore?