In August of last year major platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify permanently removed the alt- right accounts of Alex Jones (no, not that Alex Jones of One Show fame – this is the Alex Jones of Infowars infamy – think tinfoil hats and a disconcerting level of concern for the sexuality of frogs). But amongst these social media titans, there was one blatantly missing – Twitter.
In fact, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explicitly announced that Twitter had no plans to remove Alex Jones. As what you can say online is largely based on judgements made by private corporations – the social media platforms themselves – Twitter’s decision not to succumb to outside anti-Jones pressure was final. Twitter argued that to remove Alex Jones would be to take a political stance and thus that Twitter would no longer be a neutral base for debates. The decision not to ban Alex Jones (a man who proclaimed that the victims of the Sandy Hooks school shooting were crisis actors) also shows Twitter’s reaffirmation of former Twitter Vice President Tony Wang’s proclamation that Twitter is “the free speech wing of the free speech party”. Having Alex Jones on the platform is a good thing according to Twitter, in fact, it’s a service to public conversation. They must be right as, surely, having a greater diversity of voices in the debate can only be a good thing, crushing any ‘tyranny of the majority’. Therefore, in a time when a tsunami of censorship has wiped many voices off social media platforms, it is easy to view Twitter in the same way its CEOs promote it as – a bastion of free speech in a sea of political correctness gone mad.
However, to suggest that guarding against distortions of reality, such as not allowing the proliferation of misinformation, is to pursue a political agenda and derogate free speech, is not only false but dangerous. This was exemplified in Twitter’s lack of action against Alex Jones’ brand of alt-right conspiracy theory during the 2016 presidential elections, which lead one of Jones’ followers – who Jones knows take his word as gospel – to walk into a Pizza restaurant armed with an AR15 and open fire. Indeed, it seems Twitter’s Terms of Service are more often than not its Terms of Lip Service.
Aside from the distortion of debates via misinformation, is it fair to assume, as Twitter does, that the founding fathers of liberal thought codified free speech into doctrines such as the American constitution with the intention that it could be used as a defence by Twitter accounts whose tirades of abuse are doing a disservice to the very liberty free speech was intended to preserve? Indeed, this disservice can be seen through research by the International Women’s Media Foundation, which found that around 40 percent of the female journalists they interviewed had stopped writing about stories they knew would be lightning rods for attacks. Damning to democracy, indeed.
In fact, it is the total deregulation of free speech that Twitter spearheads that is shutting down debates. However, Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s general counsel, likes to argue the opposite: that regulation, the threat of being banned from the platform, makes people afraid to voice their opinions. But, in actuality, the real consideration on Twitter for many users is “how many abusive responses will I receive for voicing my honest opinion?” This consideration is especially prominent amongst female politicians and journalists, and in the case of Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones, the torrent of racist and sexist responses in reply to any and all of her tweets caused her to leave the platform completely. It is in this way that the lack of regulation and the consequent tirades of abuse allows the most toxic of users to censor the speech of others either through forcing them off the platform and out of the debate or by discouraging users from entering into the debate in the first place. Or, as Amnesty International Research Advisor Milena Marin phrased it, Twitter “abuse of this kind really limits women’s freedom of expression online. It makes them withdraw, limits conversations and even remove themselves altogether.”
The unintended consequence of unfettered free speech silencing users, especially those who belong to specific minority groups, is not a phenomenon unique to Twitter. In fact, the question “should a tolerant society tolerate intolerant speech?” was answered by philosopher Karl Popper with a resounding “No”. Popper put forward his “Tolerance Paradox” in 1945 after the world had witnessed the atrocities that happened when in tolerant sects of society gained power.
Popper describes the exact same paradoxical implications of free speech that are at play today on Twitter. He states that when tolerance is extended to those who are openly intolerant, as a result those who hold tolerant views, and thus the views themselves will be destroyed (or, in the case of Twitter, forced off the platform). Popper concluded that any movement that preaches intolerance must therefore be outside of the law, and as paradoxical as it may seem, defending tolerance requires intolerance of the intolerant.
If Twitter wants to avoid becoming a platform solely for the loudest and most toxic views (as tolerant voices are silenced or forced off the platform) and truly wants to fulfil its aim to be a platform for free speech and debate it is in Twitter’s best interest to regulate intolerant speech and misinformation in order to ensure that a diverse range of voices (as well as minority voices) are heard in an undistorted debate. And although Twitter did eventually go on to remove Alex Jones from their platform, this was due to immense mounting public pressure rather than a new dawn of Twitter regulation. However, for now, it appears Twitter is still more concerned with appearing too “liberal” in front of its conservative audience, rather than being fully committed to the “free speech” it so often claims it protects.