Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has a problem on his hands: He either watches way too many conspiracy-laden rants on InfoWars and has ceased to live in the real world the rest of us inhabit, or he’s completely ignorant about the site’s founder, Alex Jones, who over the years has proven he prizes viewers (or, at least the dollar bills they bring with them) more than any ideology or quest for truth.
Even as the likes of Apple, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and Vimeo, among others, have banned Jones and his fear-stoking rants, Dorsey is holding firm and refusing to cut Jones off like the diseased limb he’s proven to be time and again — with his claims from everything that the Sandy Hook Elementary School children were never gunned down to “Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children,” or even that former President Barack Obama founded ISIS.
Dorsey took to NBC Nightly News last evening to defend his decision to keep Jones on his global social media platform and just slap him with a seven day long “timeout,” as Dorsey described it to Lester Holt, over a recent broadcast during which Jones warned his audience to get their “battle rifles ready.”
“We can’t build a service that is subjective just to the whims of what we personally believe,” Dorsey said while clad — as the CEO of a major public company, being interviewing on the broadcast news — in an ill-fitting black tee shirt that screamed out-of-touch, new-money, Silicon Valley millionaire-who-doesn't-care.
“I feel any suspension, whether it be a permanent or a temporary one, makes someone think about their actions and their behaviors,” Dorsey continued.
As Dorsey’s interview played on my TV, I opened up Twitter on my phone, only to see a live InfoWars feed being promoted.
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As Twitter’s 41-year-old CEO spoke with Holt, Jones was in the middle of unleashing a diatribe on attempts to "censor" him, in which he told his audience “the enemy is not letting up” — the same paranoid, militaristic terms that supposedly got him grounded from tweeting for a week. Then Jones launched into one of his never-ending ads for the vitamins and fish oil supplements he peddles on his site.
Undeterred by Dorsey, Jones ended the segment telling his audience buying his wares will make them “ready for war – ready for info war.”
Even as Jones beat his proverbial chest and thumbed his nose at the social media companies who have muted him, Dorsey himself droned on — probably unaware that the corporate talking points he was recounting to Holt were being undercut in real time on his own platform.
“Whether it works within this case to change some of those behaviors and change some of those actions, I don't know,” Dorsey said. “But this is consistent with how we enforce.”
Dorsey seems to be blissfully naïve, because his action to ban Jones from sending out his own tweets for a week isn't going to encourage Jones — or the persona he plays on the Internet — to change. His whole business model is built upon preaching hate, or at least tapping into the hate and mistrust that permeates much of the American public, and keeping him from personally Tweeting isn't much of a punishment while his network can Tweet and broadcast Jones himself on the platform. And he can also still read the site and even send direct messages to whomever he wants.
Besides, Dorsey seems to have conflated two different things: Just because Jones and other conspiracy theorists have an absolute right to believe and even say whatever they want inside their homes or to friends in the back booths at their local pubs, doesn’t mean a private company should hand them a megaphone on their way into a theatre where they will surely cry Fire — at least if the future promises to be anything like the recent past.
Twitter is a private company, and they’re under no obligation to be a service that reflexively amplifies the dangerous rantings of a money-hungry man.
The issue with which Dorsey seemingly hasn't grappled is that Jones isn’t a conservative and his site isn’t even representative of the alt-right, so giving him space isn't simply reflecting alternative viewpoints. Sure these days his site mostly caters to the fringe elements of the GOP, but Jones isn’t like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh or Tucker Carlson. Even if they now increasingly recount their own fringe theories, for years they’ve spread their version of the gospel of conservatism that has evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) into Trumpism.
And, not to defend some of the increasingly whacky ideas they peddle, they seemingly have an ideological agenda to drive — one that helps their party and the current president, who they embrace no matter how badly he tramples on what was just conservative orthodoxy a mere two years ago.
For Jones, there seems to be no bedrock foundation to his morals, except possibly his perpetual desire to increase his ratings by stoking fear, anger, suspicion and even hatred in his followers.
The First Amendment is precious and is something that we all need to protect at all costs, even for those we vehemently disagree with. But no corporation need sit idly by holding the gas can for a man who just poured out its contents and is standing by holding a pack of lit matches. That goes beyond protecting an individual’s right to be an idiot and bleeds into a real world that is endangered by social media platforms that allow our fellow citizens to be frightened into violence based on the lies and conspiracies that they regularly hear masquerading as fact on sites like Twitter.
It must be nice for Dorsey to live in the bubble of Silicon Valley but, for the rest of us who live in this all-too real world, the ever-present danger of facing a lunatic armed with his weapon of choice and fed by conspiracy theories is something we would rather not encounter on our streets, in our schools or in our social media feeds.
Matt Laslo is a reporter who has written for NPR, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and VICE News, among others. He's also an adjunct professor teaching regularly at The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at Boston University and The University of Maryland.