Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is in damage-control mode.
After dilly-dallying over not banning the InfoWars handle and the handle of its founder Alex Jones, and this is after the rest of the tech world had banned them, Twitter has now handed out a 7-day suspension to the handle. The reason for banning the account now is that Jones was found to be in violation of Twitter's content policy. The New York Times reported that Jones tweeted a link to a video calling for supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready against media and others.
The account has not been banned, but only the controversial tweet has been asked to be deleted. As per Twitter's policy, while Jones can browse and send direct messages to his followers, he will not be able to tweet, retweet, or like anything for a week. While this punishment seems mild as compared to the blackout of Jones on other social media platforms, online chatter about Twitter being biased against right-wing and conservative parties is back on.
Silicon Valley giants such as Apple, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify banned Alex Jones and InfoWars content from their platforms on 6 August.
Jones has a vast audience, almost 891,000 Twitter followers, but his views and statements have amounted to spreading hate speech and conspiracy theories. Some of the conspiracy theories he has spoken about include categorising the world trade centre attacks as an inside job, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting being a hoax created by left-wing forces to promote gun control, tweeting that Muslims in England were demanding that the Queen either convert to Islam or leave the country, and much more.
While Jones and InfoWars have been banned on Apple and YouTube, the InfoWars app is still available on the Google Play Store and Apple Store, as technically it does not violate the app store guidelines.
Alex Jones has been suspended by Twitter for 7 days for a video talking about social media censorship. Truly, monumentally, beyond stupid. 😄
On the same day that the Infowars website was brought down by a cyber attack.
Will this madness ever end? pic.twitter.com/hXDzH2b7rT
— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) August 14, 2018
Infowars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson said in a tweet that these takedowns of Jones' and InfoWars' social media presence amounted to censorship. Watson also alleged that it was being done to help Democrats in the congressional elections due in November. Alt-right supporters and those with a conservative bent of mind are already calling this a form of censorship. Silicon Valley companies have been at the receiving end when it comes to matters like free speech when seen from the conservative lens and the act of banning Jones is being seen as a continuation of that sentiment.
When every major big tech company in the Valley was banning Jones and InfoWars, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sent out this tweet defending his reasons for not being part of the ban brigade then.
We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or Infowars yesterday. We know that’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules. We’ll enforce if he does. And we’ll continue to promote a healthy conversational environment by ensuring tweets aren’t artificially amplified.
— jack (@jack) August 8, 2018
Dorsey went on to say, "Truth is we’ve been terrible at explaining our decisions in the past. We’re fixing that. We’re going to hold Jones to the same standard we hold to every account, not taking one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories."
Post his tweet on 8 August, Dorsey was seen as an outlier as he had taken a stand against what was being called the 'collective censorship' of alternative viewpoints. But since banning Jones for 7 days, Twitter too is facing the ire of Jones' followers.
Dorsey acknowledges there are issues with the platform. In an interview to The Washington Post, Dorsey said that he was experimenting with various features to promote alternative viewpoints, to tackle issues like fake news and creation of 'echo chambers'.
In another interview with NBC News, Dorsey reiterated that Twitter cannot be a service that is subjective to the whims and fancies of what its team or a group of people personally believe.
Speaking on suspending Jones for 7 days, Dorsey said, "I feel any suspension, whether it be a permanent or a temporary one, makes someone think about their actions and their behaviour." He also said that he wanted to ensure that the enforcement of rules should be more consistent on Twitter. He also acknowledged that Twitter had been slow to respond in a lot of instances.
Twitter and its controversies
Twitter has more often than not been in the grey area in such matters. Twitter is where news breaks, it's a platform used by many prominent personalities, including the US President himself, to put forth their views on matters. It's been a major tool during events such as the Arab Spring and has been an important communication portal in countries where only the State governs the media outlets and censorship of news is high.
But, these same aspects make Twitter a source for promoting false news, hate speech, being misused by State actors (as we had seen with Russian involvement with the US Presidential elections in 2016). Online harassment is something that is faced by on a daily basis by many Twitter users.
Unlike other platforms, Twitter allows you to register on its platform with a pseudonym. The reason given is that it allows vulnerable users to be able to freely share their views on the platform without the fear of persecution. Of course, this has also made Twitter a fertile ground for users who may not really have the best intentions in mind. For instance, Twitter has been used by terror organisations to propagate their messaging. It was only recently that Twitter took down close to 1 million accounts for promoting terrorism since 2015.
Solution to Twitter woes: A work in progress
Over the last few months, we have seen a lot of changes on Twitter and according to Dorsey, these efforts will continue. Twitter has already said that election integrity (mid-term elections in the US in November) will be its top priority for the rest of the year. Dorsey reiterated the fact during the NBC interview.
He said that Twitter has limited resources as compared to Facebook or Google, so the company has to really think it through before going ahead with any policy change, without coming across as biased. But more than policy changes, Dorsey spoke about making product changes at a fundamental level, which would help take care of some of the inherent issues facing the platform.
One solution being tried to contain fake news is to have false tweets surrounded by factual tweets or tweets which call out the said tweet as obviously fake, which could help people make judgements for themselves. Labelling automated tweets sent from company accounts trying to sell to you or updating you about something is also being considered. Dorsey also spoke about looking at the way Twitter displays follower counts.
All these solutions are still a work-in-progress and it will take some time before any of they are implemented, and longer still before we find out if these measures are indeed effective. But it's good to see Dorsey accepting that Twitter has some fundamental issues. Just as it can be used as a source for good, Twitter can also be weaponised to fulfill certain objectives.
Twitter has not really been growing at the same rate as Facebook, but the last few quarters have been mostly positive for the company. Twitter posted a quarterly profit in Q1 2018, one of the very few profitable quarters in the company's history. It has taken some corrective measures such as deleting spam or bot accounts since last month, which will affect its active user numbers. But with the way social media users have been manipulated in the last US elections, and after getting a rap on the knuckles from the Senate for the Russian involvement in spreading misinformation through social media, Twitter has to be quite proactive to ensure that its platform isn't misused during the upcoming primaries in the US in November. At the same time, it also has to ensure that it is not viewed as an organisation with an agenda against a particular ideology.
Balancing all these things is a tough act and Dorsey is looking at a thorny road ahead.