The New Gatekeepers

Unlike everyone else, Twitter still sees itself as a champion of free speech

August 8, 2018

Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been blocked, banned or removed from a host of platforms, including Facebook, Spotify, YouTube, Apple, and even MailChimp. But one major social service has so far refused to join the anti-Jones bandwagon: Not only that, but Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey reiterated on Tuesday that he has no plans to ban Jones or his ilk. Why has the company chosen this path when everyone else seems convinced that banning him is the right thing to do?

In part, it could be about boosting engagement and revenue—the answer many give when asked why Twitter allows trolls (including the troll-in-chief, Donald Trump) to remain on the network. But it also likely has a lot to do with the company’s history as a social platform, and its vision of itself as a bastion of free speech.

You can see this in Dorsey’s responses to the Infowars controversy. His first message is simple: Twitter hasn’t banned or suspended Jones or Infowars because they haven’t violated Twitter’s rules of behavior. In a followup message, he suggests that having Jones on the service is the best approach, because that allows journalists to “document, validate and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions.” This approach is what “serves the public conversation best,” says Dorsey.

Many journalists responded antagonistically to this, since it implied journalists should be cleaning up the platform instead of the company itself. “You know, Jack, our days are pretty full as it is without cleaning up your website for you pro bono,” said the Portland Press Herald. On a deeper level, however, Dorsey’s message fits with his view of what Twitter is—an information network populated in part by journalists, who perform a kind of crowdsourced fact-checking service, and thereby create a marketplace of ideas where controversial views are encouraged and free speech reigns.

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This is markedly different from what Facebook has been trying to do since it first appeared on the world stage. Although CEO Mark Zuckerberg likes to talk about free speech, Facebook’s purpose has always been much more about community, about building connections between family members and friends. Free speech has always taken a back seat to those goals, and to the goal of building a multibillion-dollar revenue generating machine—in fact, Facebook has shown time and time again that it is more than happy to take down or block content for a variety of reasons, including government pressure.

Twitter, by contrast, has always seen itself as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” as former Twitter executive Tony Wang put it in 2012. From the beginning, the company’s focus has been protecting the right of users to say whatever they wanted, even if it was problematic—as it did in 2013 when it fought a French demand to censor homophobic and anti-Semitic comments. The company has also fought numerous attempts by various governments to block or censor content, although it does censor certain kinds of posts where it is required to do so by law (including pro-Nazi sentiment in Germany).

This helps explain why Twitter has tried to define what is and isn’t acceptable so narrowly, saying tweets have to contain explicit statements of violence towards specific individuals before they contravene the rules (although critics say it doesn’t even police that rule consistently). In a sense, the company is trapped in the utopian vision of the future it had when it started: that giving people the tools to share information in real time would create a kind of intellectual meritocracy where the best information would win.

To some, that now seems like a hopelessly naive way to look at the internet, given overwhelming evidence that networks like Twitter and Facebook have enabled hate speech and harassment and even contributed to violence on a scale never before possible. But Twitter seems committed to it regardless.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.