This just in from the better-late-than-never department.
Last week Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify “deplatformed” Alex Jones’ InfoWars from their platforms and pages. It took them years to acknowledge that InfoWars violated their terms of service and it was time to say goodbye to the angry Mr Jones.
The only holdout is Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, who says Twitter will not remove InfoWars because Alex Jones did not violate Twitter’s terms of service, specifically Twitter’s safety rules which require someone to “cross the line” into threatening violence before they are banned.
Dorsey and his supporters raised a number of arguments to support this position, none of which are persuasive. Here’s the rundown:
Banning Alex Jones is a violation of free speech: Wrong. It’s the government, not corporations, that are prohibited from infringing one’s right of free speech, and even then, free speech is not unlimited. It can be restricted by laws against hate speech, defamation, etc.
It’s wrong to allow giant internet companies to act collectively and become the de facto arbiter of speech: This allegation is based on unsubstantiated assumptions. There is no evidence these companies acted in concert. There is no evidence these companies will become the de facto arbiter of speech. But most importantly, there is no law preventing them from enforcing their own Terms of Service. Mr Jones raised a similar argument, calling upon Donald Trump to deal with this act of “corporate totalitarianism”. It sounds silly coming from Mr Jones and it sounds even sillier coming from those who support Twitter’s position.
Mr Jones did/did not violate the Terms of Service: Rather than review every company’s Terms of Service (they’re similar), let’s focus on Facebook. It’s Terms of Service say FB will not condone conduct that violates community standards including hate speech and bullying. FB says it will remove content that “encourages real-world harm, including (but not limited to) physical, financial and emotional injury”. The user agrees not to engage in such conduct or to facilitate or support others in doing so.
Twitter’s Terms of Service prohibit “behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice…[or] specific threats of violence or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people”. Abuse is defined as “the targeted harassment of someone” or inciting others to do so.
We could spend all day dissecting Mr Jones’ assertions that the moon landing was faked, Democrats ran a sex slave operation out of a pizza parlor, the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax and the students at Parkland are crisis actors, but in the interests of time, let’s focus on the story of Brennan Gilmore’s experience at Charlottesville.
Mr Gilmore attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville as part of his “civic duty to bear witness”. He witnessed the car attack by a white supremacist on a crowd of anti-racist protesters and uploaded the video to the internet when people said the attack was an accident not intentional.
Within 24 hours the internet was awash with conspiracy theories. Mr Jones amplified these theories by posting a “bombshell” investigation to his 2.4 million InfoWars YouTube subscribers that alleged Mr Gilmore was an operative in a George Soros plot to overthrow the president on behalf of the “dark state”. Mr Gilmore and his family have been receiving death threats ever since.
Under FB’s Terms of Service Mr Jones’ actions were a violation of the prohibition against hate speech, bullying, and facilitating or supporting others in such conduct. Under Twitter’s Terms of Service Mr Jones’ actions could be considered “abuse”, namely the targeted harassment of someone or inciting others to do so.
Somewhere along the way since Charlottesville, Facebook decided Mr Gilmore “crossed the line”. Twitter has yet to get there.
It’s hard to enforce the Terms of Service: Critics complain that “community standards” are fluid and “hate speech” is a difficult concept therefore it’s difficult to police these sites and enforce these policies. While that may be true in some cases, it’s not true in the InfoWars case. Mr Jones is crystal clear about who the “enemy” is and what “patriots” should do about him/her.
Not my job: When called upon to justify his position, Twitter’s Mr Dorsey said “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.”
There are two problems with Mr Dorsey’s suggestion: (1) it’s the job of Twitter, not journalists, to enforce Twitter’s Terms of Service, and (2) journalists have enough to do to track down and document the truth without being asked to convince a conspiracy theorist to change his mind after it has been polluted by InfoWars.
Mr Gilmore is a case in point. He’s told journalists he is not a CIA operative for George Soros. The conspiracy theorists say, “Well, of course he’s going to deny it. He’s a CIA operative!”
At the end of the day
Eventually Mr Dorsey gave way on one point. He agrees it’s not the journalists’ responsibility to clean up his mess. Instead he adopted the suggestion made by Mike Masnick in TechDirt that social media companies should adopt a set of protocols that pass content control down to the end users. Those who don’t want to be exposed to InfoWars can set up filters to screen themselves from the experience.
Leaving aside the obvious point that this solution renders Twitter’s Terms of Service meaningless, this suggestion makes no sense. What’s the point of hiding InfoWars from people like Mr Gilmore when the company doesn’t hide InfoWars from the people who want to kill Mr Gilmore because they believe he’s a treasonous Soros operative?
Mr Dorsey says, “We’re committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.”
It’s time for Mr Dorsey to stop making excuses and put his money where his mouth is.