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Aug. 10, 2018, 9:12 a.m.
Audience & Social

We can write about Twitter, we can stay on Twitter, but we can’t expect anything from Twitter

Ultimately, what it probably comes down to is These platforms are terrible, are they ultimately enough of a net positive for me individually that I stay on them?

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Are you still having fun? Brief recap of why Alex Jones and Infowars are bad and gross. Infowars is a conspiracy-theory-driven website that publishes many fake stories and also sells a ton of overpriced and ineffective nutritional supplements. (It has also, over the years, ripped off thousands of pieces of content not just from Russia Today but also from mainstream news organizations like The Washington Post, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and CNN.) Some of the conspiracy theories that Jones has propagated on the site and his daily radio show: That the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax (Sandy Hook parents are suing Jones for claiming that their murdered children were crisis actors); that the Parkland students were crisis actors; that Pizzagate was real; that 9/11 was staged by the U.S. government. Jones is a Trump supporter, and Trump, who has been a guest on his show, is a supporter of Jones and Infowars. (Here’s more Trump/Jones connection if you want it.)

In mid-July, CNN’s Oliver Darcy had the opportunity to ask Facebook why — if it’s so committed to getting fake news off the platform — it didn’t ban Infowars. Facebook’s response was jumbled — “I guess just for being false that doesn’t violate the community standards…we created Facebook to be a place where different people can have a voice” — and the company suggested that, rather than banning a site outright, it prefers to downrank it in its algorithm. This is still an editorial decision, because algorithms are created by people, but the algorithm can’t be pinned as conveniently on one person (and its effects can’t be identified as readily from the outside). Of course this response didn’t satisfy anyone, and the questioning built: Instead of just suspending Jones for spreading vile hoaxes, why didn’t YouTube and Facebook ban him altogether?

Then they did, though it took a different company — Apple, which generally in these debates has been able to escape criticism all together possibly in part because its executives don’t make rambling, self-contradictory statements about all opinions being equally valid, and also because it’s not a social media company — to move first-ish. (A smaller company was really the first mover: As Nick Quah reported this week, Stitcher was actually the first major podcast platform to remove Jones’s podcasts in their entirety.) On Sunday night, Apple removed five of six of Jones’ podcasts from the iTunes and Podcast apps. (The Infowars app remains available.) Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Pinterest, YouPorn, and Mailchimp followed.

None of the platforms have explicitly said that Jones’ spreading fake news is the reason they’re taking the pages down; instead, they mention his violation of hate speech guidelines. In that case, they should have removed his pages sooner. Instead, it seems that once Apple took down most of the Infowars podcasts, Facebook and Google (coincidentally, I’m sure) suddenly realized they were fine with doing the same thing.

One company, you will notice, is missing here. Alex Jones and Infowars are tweeting away. I assumed early in the week that it was only a matter of time before Twitter removed those accounts, but instead the company has doubled down on Jones’ presence there, with CEO Jack Dorsey tweet-threading in his defense — the latest tech executive to unleash a torrent of words about healthy conversation and the public sphere which, after reading, you are no more informed than you were before. Reading these statements feels pointless. You’re not going to learn anything — except, over time, you will see that the platform’s decisions, good or bad, are divorced from whatever its leaders have said publicly. CNN’s Darcy reported Thursday:

Twitter’s vice president for trust and safety, Del Harvey, told employees in an email on Wednesday that if far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his fringe media organization InfoWars had posted to Twitter the same content that led YouTube and Facebook to take action against Jones and InfoWars, Twitter would have done something too.

“It’s worth noting that at least some of the content Alex Jones published on other platforms (e.g., Facebook and YouTube) that led to them taking enforcement against him would have also violated our policies had he posted it on Twitter,” Harvey wrote. “Had he done so, we would have taken action against him as well.”

But a CNN review of Jones’ accounts show that all of the videos that initially led the other tech companies to take action against Jones were in fact posted to Twitter by Jones or InfoWars. All were still live on Twitter as of the time this article was published.

Ultimately, what it probably comes down to is These platforms are terrible, are they ultimately enough of a net positive for me individually that I stay on them? Sure, you can wrap your decision in more high-minded language, but ultimately the decision of whether to stay on social media or leave it feels incredibly minor compared to the other moral dilemmas we’re faced with now, and ultimately I think most people’s decisions to leave or stay will be based on whether the platform is enough fun for them anymore. (For me personally, right now, Facebook is worth it, because it’s where my moms’ groups are, but those are the only thing I use Facebook for anymore. Twitter pretty much just makes life worse, but it’s like the toxic colleague I can’t quit because he flatters me and is a good gossip. Once I finally sever the relationship, I won’t know why it lasted so long. What is your experience?)

“Values would require that Twitter make tough calls on high-profile and obviously malevolent figures, including tossing them off as a signal of its intent to keep it civil,” Recode’s Kara Swisher wrote in her new column for The New York Times. By “values,” she means “a code that requires making hard choices — curating your offerings, which was something Apple got made fun of for doing, back when it launched the App Store, by the open-is-best crowd.” But to fix it “at this point [is] nearly impossible.”

“Since when did empirical fact become a personal view?” Adrienne LaFrance wrote for The Atlantic.

We can parse these executives’ language all we want. We can discuss how, even if the Alex Jones case seemed clear-cut, it’s a slippery slope and other cases will be tougher. But in the end all we really have to go by is the companies’ actions. The mistake right now is to expect them to be leaders in any way.

“We decided, on a corporate level, that we should not take project money from Google and Facebook, whatever it is they’re handing out money for, whether it’s for interns or specific journalism projects,” Karin Pettersson, Schibsted’s new director of public policy, told my colleague Shan Wang this week. For Schibsted that means no grants from Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund, for instance. Other publishers will make less high-minded decisions, figuring they might as well take the money where they can get it. Both publishers and users could be forgiven for simply mining the platforms for what they’re worth, since that is what the platforms are doing to us.

Photo of Alex Jones in 2014 by Sean P. Anderson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 10, 2018, 9:12 a.m.
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