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Twitter defends not suspending Alex Jones

FILE — Alex Jones, founder of the conspiracy theory website Infowars, in Austin, Texas, Feb. 17, 2017. A Massachusetts man sued Jones and Infowars, saying they falsely identified him as the gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times/Copyright 2018)

Twitter positioned itself this week as an outlier among technology companies and streaming services that have acted in recent days to limit the platform enjoyed by Alex Jones and his Infowars shows because of allegations of hate speech.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter's co-founder and chief executive, said in a series of messages posted Tuesday evening that the social networking service had not suspended accounts associated with Jones, 44, because he had not violated the company's policies. Dorsey's explanation, which elaborated on a short statement released by Twitter the day before, came under immediate criticism and renewed the debate over the parameters of hate speech and the responsibility of technology firms to regulate the flow of information while remaining neutral platforms.

Twitter, which now stands out as one of the few social media sites refusing to curtail Jones's online reach, has been attacked by conservatives claiming that the platform is stifling them as it aims to purge fake accounts and automated bots. The other companies, including Facebook and Apple, cited harassment and hate speech as among the reasons they had deleted years of content from Jones, who responded by telling The Washington Post that the First Amendment was in danger.

Jones, who has a verified Twitter account with 855,000 followers, had not been barred for a "simple" reason, Dorsey said: "he hasn't violated our rules. We'll enforce if he does."

"Truth is we've been terrible at explaining our decisions in the past," Dorsey added. "We're fixing that. 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."

A number of platforms have reached a different conclusion, as the crackdown on Jones intensified this week. A decision late Sunday by Apple to erase virtually all of Jones' podcasts from iTunes and its podcast apps set off a cascade. Facebook blocked four of Jones' pages on Monday morning, followed by YouTube's decision to delete his Infowars page, which boasted 2.4 million followers. Both sites had already temporarily limited his publishing power, and Spotify showed itself ready to act against Jones when it removed some of his podcasts last week.

Dorsey said on Twitter that the company would not cave to "outside pressure."

"Accounts like Jones' can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it's critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best," Dorsey said.

A set of new rules on "hateful conduct and abusive behavior," implemented by Twitter at the end of last year, added additional content, such as "hateful imagery," to the category of material banned because it constitutes "specific threats of violence or wishing for serious physical harm, death, or disease to an individual or group of people." Twitter has recently stepped up actions against fake accounts, but the company has admitted that it has no "scalable policy or set of product features around authenticity of content."

Kevin M. Kruse, a historian at Princeton, sought to portray Dorsey's resort to Twitter's codes of conduct as blind to Jones' online behavior. The conspiracy theorist faces several defamation lawsuits arising from his claim that the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax.

"Have you considered adding a new rule against users who harass the parents of dead kindergartners so much that they have to go into hiding?" Kruse wrote on Twitter.

Dorsey also appeared to put the onus of identifying false information on individual users, calling on journalists to "document, validate, and refute such information." This marks a contrast with the approach of Facebook, which has rolled out a set of fact-checking initiatives, including the use of machine-learning tools to prevent the spread of debunked stories.

A former communications director for Twitter, Emily Horne, responded directly to Dorsey on Twitter, disagreeing with the decision not to ban Jones and faulting the company's CEO for appearing to blame the outcry against Twitter on "communications." Dorsey said in his posts that "we've been terrible at explaining our decisions in the past."

"Also, FWIW I think this is the wrong call. Jones' behavior isn't a one-off. Twitter started examining offline behavior as a factor in verification last fall. If your policy doesn't account for Jones-like activity on/offline then the policy isn't serving a healthy conversation," Horne said.

Horne, who now works for the Brookings Institution, said the company's error lay in attempting to separate online behavior from offline activity, arguing that Jones's digital communications "encourage followers to harass/harm people offline." Amid the reaction against Jones sweeping much of the technology industry, she said, Twitter had missed "an opportunity to take a stand and commit to making and enforcing hard choices in service of promoting healthy conversation."

It wasn't only major technology companies that chose to remove material associated with Jones. An online porn site, YouPorn, said Tuesday it had deleted six of his videos and would no longer host any content related to the prolific conspiracy theorist.

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This article was written by Isaac Stanley-Becker, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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