As the debate over how to stop the spread of of fake news continues to rage, social media companies have started experimenting with proactive ways to help prevent it. In May, Twitter announced a new harassment policy to crack down on troll accounts. But one recent controversy has demonstrated that Twitter’s new policy still has much room for improvement.
On August 6th, BuzzFeed News reported that Apple had completely removed five of the six podcasts from Alex Jones, the founder of the site InfoWars, which is notorious for perpetuating wildly false and sometimes outright racist conspiracy theories. After Apple’s move, other social media companies including Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify were quick to follow by banning Jones and scrubbing their sites of his content. The companies all told BuzzFeed that Jones’ had participated in hate speech, thus violating their terms of service.
But Twitter has not banned Jones from its platform. On August 7th, an update from the Twitter Safety Account stated that “tweets from Alex Jones and InfoWars are not currently in violation of our Rules.” The company went on to explain its policy by tweeting that it would only take action against “targeted behavior that harasses, threatens, or uses fear to silence others.” It defined “targeted behavior” as being tagged in a photo or mentioned by another user.
CEO Jack Dorsey further explained the decision in a series of tweets, writing that Twitter would “hold Jones to the same standard we hold to any account.”
While it’s true that Jones may not have @-mentioned any of his targets, the false narratives he helps spread have definitely caused harm. As NPR noted, Jones’ site InfoWars helped circulate the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex-trafficking ring, a rumor that culminated in a shooting at a Washington, D.C. pizzeria in 2016. And according to CNN, Jones is currently being sued for defamation by the family members of six Sandy Hook victims after he spread rumors that the shooting was a hoax. The suit against Jones states that the plaintiffs have experienced harassment as a result of this lie.
It’s disappointing that someone like Jones, who poses a real threat to others’ safety, would be protected under Twitter’s harassment policy. Free speech is a right, but hate speech is dangerous and should not be given a platform to flourish.