Twitter positioned itself this week as an outlier among technology companies and streaming services that have acted to limit the platform enjoyed by Alex Jones and his Infowars website and talk shows over allegations of hate speech.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and chief executive, said in tweets posted Tuesday evening that the social networking service had not suspended accounts associated with Jones, 44, because he had not violated the company’s policies. Dorsey’s explanation, which elaborated on a short statement released by Twitter the day before, drew immediate criticism and added fuel to the debate over the parameters of hate speech and the responsibility of technology firms to regulate the flow of information while remaining neutral platforms.
Twitter, now one of the few social media sites refusing to curtail Jones’s online reach, has been attacked by conservatives claiming that the platform is stifling them as it aims to purge fake accounts and automated bots. Other companies, including Facebook and Apple, cited harassment and hate speech as among the reasons they had deleted years of content from Jones, who responded by telling The Washington Post that the First Amendment was in danger.
Jones, who has a verified Twitter account with 855,000 followers, had not been barred for a “simple” reason, Dorsey said: “he hasn’t violated our rules. We’ll enforce if he does.”
A number of media platforms have reached a different conclusion, as the crackdown on Jones intensified this week. A decision late Sunday by Apple to erase virtually all of Jones’s podcasts from iTunes and its podcast apps set off a cascade. Facebook blocked four of Jones’s pages on Monday morning, and YouTube followed by deleting the Infowars page, which boasted 2.4 million followers. Both sites had already temporarily limited Jones’s publishing power, and Spotify had already removed some of Jones’s podcasts last week.
Dorsey said on Twitter that the company would not cave to “outside pressure.”
At the end of last year, Twitter announced a set of new rules on “hateful conduct and abusive behavior.” Since then, the platform has added content, such as “hateful imagery,” to the category of banned material, deeming that it constitutes “specific threats of violence or wishing for serious physical harm, death, or disease to an individual or group of people.” Twitter has also stepped up actions against fake accounts, but the company has acknowledged that it has no “scalable policy or set of product features around authenticity of content.”
Kevin M. Kruse, a historian at Princeton University, slammed Dorsey’s explanation for not banning Jones as being blind to the conspiracy theorist’s online behavior. Jones has drawn a barrage of complaints because of many baseless and incendiary claims made on his shows, including that mass shootings in American schools may have been staged and that the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government. He faces several defamation lawsuits arising from his claim that the 2012 mass shooting of schoolchildren and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax.
Dorsey acknowledged that “Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors.” But he also appeared to put the onus of identifying false information on individual users and journalists, calling on the press to “document, validate, and refute such information.” (In contrast, Facebook has responded to the spread of misinformation on its platform by rolling out a set of fact-checking initiatives, including the use of machine-learning tools to prevent the spread of debunked stories.)
Emily Horne, a former communications director for Twitter, responded directly to Dorsey’s tweets, disagreeing with the decision not to ban Jones and faulting the company’s chief executive for appearing to blame the outcry against Twitter on “communications,” as Dorsey said in his posts that “we’ve been terrible at explaining our decisions in the past.”
Horne, who now works for the Brookings Institution, said the company’s error lay in attempting to separate online behavior from offline activity, arguing that Jones’s digital communications “encourage followers to harass/harm people offline.” Amid the reaction against Jones sweeping much of the tech industry, she said, Twitter had missed “an opportunity to take a stand and commit to making and enforcing hard choices in service of promoting healthy conversation.”
Following other media sites, online porn site YouPorn, said Tuesday it had deleted six videos spoofing Jones and would no longer host any content related to the prolific conspiracy theorist.
Twitter’s decision comes as the company faces heightened criticism from conservative leaders who have charged the company with censoring right-leaning figures. Earlier in the summer, Dorsey convened a private dinner in the District with commentators and Republican officials to address the allegations and to try to build trust among conservative leaders.
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