Silicon Valley, with its “disruptor” culture, has long embraced libertarianism’s extreme focus on individual freedom, regardless of the cost to the common good. It is essentially a system that accrues additional power to those who already have it. And right now, the people with the power are neo-fascists whose speech is being protected by Twitter.
There’s one in the Oval Office as I write this, and he’s coddled an even more noxious breed in the form of conspiracy theorists who are capable of directing violence at his opponents. Sure, they may not tell their followers to “go kill so and so”—but they don’t have to. If you tell people that there’s a ring of pedophiles among the president’s opponents, and that they operate out of a particular pizzeria, you don’t get to act surprised when a guy with a gun shows up at the pizzeria, ostensibly in defense of the children.
Consider for a minute a recent tweet from Alex Jones, proprietor and main personality of InfoWars, in which he claims that a “genocide” is being conducted against white farmers in South Africa. This is a blatant lie. But if you believed it and thought yourself a warrior against bad things, and you happened to have a gun, you might want to try to stop it somehow.
There is a genocide against white farmers currently taking place in South Africa and the Prime Minister of Britain has come out in support of the land seizure policy of the government -
— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) August 29, 2018
But the leaders of Twitter—one of the last social media platforms not to ban Jones for a violation of their terms of service agreements—regard Jones’s dangerous, flame-fanning falsehood as a mere matter of opinion, which is not to be policed. (His account was suspended for one week after he tweeted a video of himself calling his followers to “ready their battle rifles” against the media. Jones had previously made a threat on the life of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating the relationship between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government agents who conducted a hacking and disinformation campaign against Trump’s election opponent, Hillary Clinton.)
In an August 31 interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, Twitter Director of Public Policy Carlos Monje discussed the hundreds of fake accounts Twitter has dumped, including those belonging to a disinformation campaign being directed, he said, by Iran.
But when Inskeep asked why it’s OK for Alex Jones to advance disinformation such as the “white genocide” tweet—which, by the way, is a big ol’ dog whistle to the U.S. far right—Monje replied, “We want to make sure that we allow a venue for all voices to come out. If somebody breaks the law, if somebody engages in hateful conduct, if somebody calls for violence or uses racial slurs—those are things we think are beyond the pale, and we’ll take you off the platform.”
“But what about that particular example?” Inskeep asked. “It’s not exactly a racial slur; he didn’t use the N-word—he probably did something that was worse.” Inskeep noted that the accusation of “white genocide” is one used by white supremacists to gin up “racial anxiety.”
Monje replied by saying that “when a falsehood comes out on the platform,” the community will correct it. But that’s an answer that could only be believed by someone with no knowledge of the structure of Twitter, and no understanding of how Twitter highlights the most extreme of divisions. If you’re the kind of person who follows Alex Jones on Twitter because you’re inclined to agree with Alex Jones, you’re probably not going to see much of the push-back against his claim. That’s because the other people you follow on Twitter are also likely to agree with Alex Jones, and theirs are the tweets that appear in your feed.
If you want to dig into the replies to Jones, you have to take extra steps to follow the thread. And if you do, you’re likely to discount the voices arrayed against his claim because, as you see it, they’re on the enemy team. And the president, whom Jones supports, is constantly telling you that reputable news sources publish “fake news.”
The lords of Twitter, it seems, want to have things both ways. They’d like to pretend that they’re a public square governed by the ethos of the First Amendment, even as they begin to turn a profit—not a prospect available to regulators of a public square. And they want to appear to be doing their civic duty by purging bot accounts controlled by foreign actors (and yes, that’s a good thing) even as they allow a demagogue to incite the unhinged to take violent action against the president’s perceived enemies.
Being a publicly traded company, as Twitter is, has its advantages. But for company leaders, it also has its drawbacks. Shareholders have a say in how the company conducts itself. It’s time for Twitter’s shareholders to step in for the good of the country. Alex Jones can say whatever he wants in a public park, as long as he’s not saying it’s on fire. But the leaders of Twitter don’t have to permit him to state false claims that are clearly designed to provoke strife—and neither do Twitter’s shareholders.
Of course, if they remove Jones for making false claims designed to fan the flames of racial anxiety, they might also have to ban the president of the United States, who has been known to do much the same thing.