Jonesing for some controversy
This week Twitter and its social media peers laid bare a deep philosophical problem that we've all known about for a while.
The alt-right shock jock Alex Jones was banned this week from a number of the world's largest technology platforms
. But Twitter demurred.
Jones is the ne plus ultra of conspiracy peddlers. Amongst his most noxious refrains is the claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a hoax. It's a lie, and a repeated one
, that has led Infowars trolls to hound the grieving parents of slaughtered children. This week his Infowars brand was removed from Facebook, Spotify, Apple Podcasts and YouTube for promoting hate speech and violence.
In choosing to not follow suit Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that Jones hadn't violated Twitter's rules. A predictable brouhaha
ensued. Among the reactions were observations that Twitter's rules themselves may be suspect, if Alex Jones can do what he does and not break them. Indeed, some of the more uncharitable corners of Twitter were quick to jump down Dorsey's throat with the type of maddened glee that infects many keyboard warriors.
Dorsey's delivery may have been botched, but his position is worth understanding. Twitter's rulebook is vanishingly thin - by design. Its Trust and Safety team takes a radically non-interventionist approach to moderation. They believe that truthful information will outmanoeuvre hurtful information on the platform (aided, Dorsey hopes, by willing journalists with spare time). There are two ways to view this stance. The cynic would say that this is a smoke-screen to let Twitter abnegate responsibility in pursuit of commercial objectives. A more generous interpretation might be that theirs is in fact quite an idealistic stance
. Jones hasn't broken any rules because (according to Twitter) his opinions - hurtful as they are - are no less valid than yours or mine.
And this is where the philosophical problem arises. In Economics, the laissez-faire or 'free market' view of non-intervention is rebutted by the keynsian belief in government intervention to maintain equilibrium. And there are adherents on both sides. Now, as the tech platforms grow to quasi-governmental stature, a similar debate about platform intervention is spilling over into the arena of free speech.
Apple chose to intervene this week. Twitter didn't. But what's really interesting is that both companies did as they pleased, without accountability to anyone other than themselves. Governments, after all, get voted out of office if they mismanage the economy. But what happens when tech platforms mismanage our discourse?
Dorsey's comment that Twitter wouldn't succumb to "outside pressure" was plaintive but there is a valuable insight to be had. Every other major platform banning Jones in the space of a week reeked of peer pressure and groupthink. Right now we worry about these platforms independently and capriciously adjudicating speech. Matters will get significantly worse if they decide to run in packs.
The other issue as well is that even those few rules that do exist on Twitter are unevenly policed. Users can directly target people with hate speech, unfettered, yet others are banned for far more whimsical reasons.
Regardless of stance, moderation of any sort cannot work without trust. And the problem for Twitter and its brethren is that incomplete, misunderstood, and constantly-evolving rules may be a necessary reality of our connected and complicated world, but they do nothing to engender trust.
Lastly, it must be noted that those who advocate for Jones to be banned ('deplatforming' in contemporary vernacular) are often unprepared to answer the consequential questions of such an action. For years Jones has ranted about being silenced (on his huge platform to his legions of fans). Now he has been vindicated
. Moreover, downloads of his app have skyrocketed. So 'deplatforming' is not only controversial, it might also be self-defeating.