NEW YORK — A day after Twitter gave right-wing conspiratorialist Alex Jones a weeklong timeout, CEO Jack Dorsey is mulling deeper changes to the social media service that might limit the spread of fake news, misinformation and hate speech.
Twitter joined other prominent tech companies in muzzling Jones, the founder of the Infowars site, who has used Twitter and other social outlets to spread false information. Twitter had resisted the move despite public pressure, but the holdout lasted less than two weeks.
“They seem to be reacting to the backlash they received when so many other companies in Silicon Valley ended up taking action,” said Keegan Hankes, research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, who focuses on far right extremist propaganda online. “It's illustrative of a broader trend of reactive enforcement” by the companies, he added.
Then on Wednesday, Dorsey told the Washington Post that he is exploring changes to core elements of Twitter's service that could promote alternative perspectives in its timeline. The move could address falsehoods, conspiracy theories and other misinformation, and might also reduce online "echo chambers," in which users are exposed mostly to viewpoints they already agree with.
The CEO said the “most important thing that we can do” is to revisit the incentives Twitter uses to shape how people behave on the service. “Because they do express a point of view of what we want people to do — and I don't think they are correct anymore,” he said Twitter later confirmed Dorsey's comments.
Dorsey said Twitter is also exploring ways to label automated accounts, known as “bots,” which are often used to inflate follower counts or to amplify harassment or false accusations on the service. (Many bots also have benign uses.)
The executive told the Post that Twitter hasn't reconsidered its core incentives, designed to keep users engaged and interactive, in the dozen years of its existence. “We often turn to policy to fix a lot of these issues, but I think that is only treating surface-level symptoms that we are seeing,” he said.
The situation with Jones may be illustrative. Late Tuesday, Twitter said it had “limited” Jones’ personal account for seven days because he had violated the company's rules. Jones won't be able to tweet or retweet, though he will be able to browse Twitter. The company would not comment on what the offending post said.
But in a video posted Wednesday to the Twitter account for Infowars, Jones said the company suspended him and may shut him down completely because he violated its rules by posting a “video I shot last night saying (President Donald) Trump should do something about the censorship of the internet.”
Later Wednesday, Twitter put the Infowars account on the same seven-day timeout as Jones, apparently for posting the same video.
Paul Joseph Watson, the editor-at-large for Infowars, posted a screenshot of a Twitter notice that said Jones had his account “temporarily limited” because he violated its rules against “targeted harassment of someone, or (inciting) other people to do so.”
The video is no longer available on Twitter or Periscope, where Jones posted it. But it is still up elsewhere on the web. In it, Jones says people “need to have their battle rifles and everything ready at their bedsides and you got to be ready because the media is so disciplined in their deception.”
This punishment is light compared with that leveled by Apple, YouTube and Spotify, which permanently removed material Jones had published. Facebook, meanwhile, suspended him for 30 days and took down four of his pages, including two for Infowars.
Dorsey had originally defended his company's decision not to ban Jones, tweeting that Jones “hasn't violated our rules” but if he does “we'll enforce.”
“We're going to hold Jones to the same standard we hold to every account, not taking one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories,” Dorsey tweeted on Aug. 7, after the other companies took action against Jones.
The apparent change of heart reflects a Twitter still hanging onto its roots as a free-wheeling Wild West of the internet in an age where online words can have serious real-life consequences. Along with other social media companies, it is now grappling with how to enforce sometimes vague rules without appearing partisan and while leaning toward promoting, rather than curbing, free speech.
When deciding what the rules are and how to enforce them — especially when it comes to gray areas — they are up against both conservatives and liberals claiming bias and feeling silenced. There are also users who often just want to post about their daily lives, and even against their own employees, be they free speech absolutists or those who feel people like Jones do not deserve an online megaphone.
“The platforms cannot win because some constituency will be offended no matter what they do,” said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor.
Twitter, Hankes said, is either underequipped or unwilling to enforce its written rules, instead embracing the idea of an online free-speech utopia. But, he added, “the unchecked use of these platforms by bad actors does not make utopia.”