Twitter is doing that thing again. That thing where it stands by an incoherent policy choice that is only consistent with its long historical record of inconsistency.
Late Tuesday, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey took to the platform to defend his company’s choice to keep manic conspiracy theorist and hatemonger Alex Jones and his Infowars empire alive and tweeting.
Last week, that choice wouldn’t have turned heads, but after a kind of sudden and inexplicable sea change from all of the other major social platforms over the weekend, Twitter stands alone. To be fair, those social platforms didn’t really assert their own decisions to oust Jones — Apple led the pack, kicking him out of its Podcasts app, and the rest — Facebook, Spotify and YouTube, most notably — meekly followed suit.
Prior to its new statements, Twitter justified its decision to not ban Jones first by telling journalists like us that Jones didn’t actually violate Twitter’s terms of service because most of his abuse and hateful conduct, two violations that might get him banished, live one click away, outside the platform.
The same could be said for most of the hateful drivel that came from the infamous account of the now-banned Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos was eventually booted from Twitter for violating the platform’s periodically enforced prohibition against “the targeted abuse or harassment of others.” Jones is known for commanding a similarly hateful online loser army, though in his case they mostly spend their time harassing the parents of Sandy Hook victims rather than black actresses. Twitter’s point is that this kind of harassment needs to actually take place on its platform to get a user kicked off, which in a world in which Twitter policy was uniformly enforced (i.e. a world in which Twitter dedicated sufficient resources to the problem) that would at least be a consistent policy.
Instead of articulating that policy in a clear, decisive way, Twitter said some unnecessarily defensive things that kind of miss the point via an @jack tweetstorm and a tepid blog post touting the company’s vague new commitment to “healthy public conversation.”
If you didn’t read either, you’re not missing anything. Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:
“Our policies and enforcement options evolve continuously to address emerging behaviors online and we sometimes come across instances where someone is reported for an incident that took place prior to that behavior being prohibited. In those instances, we will generally require the individual to delete the Tweet that violates the new rules but we won’t generally take other enforcement action against them (e.g. suspension). This is reflective of the fact that the Twitter Rules are a living document. We continue to expand and update both them and our enforcement options to respond to the changing contours of online conversation. This is how we make Twitter better for everyone.”
Great, crystal clear. Right? If it isn’t here’s a taste of Dorsey’s new tweetstorm:
Here’s the gist:
Alex Jones and Infowars didn’t break any of Twitter’s rules. Twitter is very bad at explaining its choices and trying to get better, maybe. Twitter won’t follow other platforms for policy enforcement decisions like this because it thinks that sets a bad precedent. Twitter doesn’t want to become a platform “constructed by [its creators’] personal views” (this delusion of neutrality bit is where he really started losing us).
Dorsey finishes with a fairly infuriating assertion that journalists should shoulder all of the work of addressing hatespeech and generally horrific content that leads to real-life harassment, it’s not really Twitter’s problem. Believe us, we’re working on it!!
“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.”
To the bit about journalists, all we can say is: Twitter, just own your shit.
Even for those of us concerned about the precedents set by some of tech’s occasional lopsided gestures toward limiting the myriad horrors on the extremely totally neutral platforms that definitely in no way make tech companies publishers, Dorsey’s comments suck. Sure, the whole thing about staying consistent sounds okay at first, but Twitter is the platform most infamous for its totally uneven enforcement around harassment and hate speech and the one that leaves its users most vulnerable. If the company is truly making an effort to be less terrible at explaining its decisions — and we’re skeptical about that too — this is pretty inauspicious start.
Added to this, former Twitter VP of comms Emily Horne responded to Dorsey with some notable points, including a claim that Twitter has already begun taking into account user behavior offline. That makes the lack of action against Jones all the more baffling.