Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has faced a barrage of criticism for his company’s refusal to remove accounts belonging to Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist whose incendiary screeds have already led other tech industry titans to boot him from their platforms.
On Tuesday, Dorsey’s company finally took some action: It suspended Jones’ personal account for one week after he urged his viewers to get their “battle rifles” ready to use against the media.
To Twitter’s critics, the decision to block Jones wasn’t exactly a cause for celebration. Before his suspension, Jones had a prolific history of hateful and abusive remarks that went more or less unchecked. He regularly attacks Jewish businessman George Soros, whom Jones terms an “insane Nazi collaborator,” has repeatedly linked LGBTQ people and Muslims to pedophilia, and once vowed to “destroy” drag queens.
Jones’ fringe views, oft-baseless claims and hate-filled rhetoric have him currently embroiled in several lawsuits, including efforts to hold him accountable for pushing the idea that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was faked by the government ― which Jones also discusses over Twitter. Parents of the murdered children face so many threats that some have needed to move several times, The New York Times reported last month. Similarly, Jones claimed that students who survived the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, were “crisis actors,” leading to more abuse.
While Jones is currently temporarily blocked from tweeting to his 800,000-some personal followers, he can still speak to the 430,000 who follow his conspiracy website, Infowars, which remains free to fret over supposed “Islamic training camps prepar[ing] recruits to trigger something big in coming civil war.”
Meanwhile, Media Matters reporter Andrew Lawrence learned this week that a simple reference to the 1987 classic “The Princess Bride” could be interpreted as a rule-breaker on Twitter.
In a post addressed to the far-right writer Ben Shapiro, Lawrence echoed the film’s hero Westley (Carey Elwes) challenging Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) to a “battle of wits” involving poisoned wine to secure the safety of Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright).
Twitter removed the post and suspended Lawrence for promoting or encouraging self-harm. After Lawrence appealed the decision, he received a form email within an hour saying the company had erred in suspending his account.
Twitter users have complained for years about the site’s unevenly enforced policies, saying the company has failed to keep abuse and general ugliness at bay. Women and minorities, in particular, say Twitter systematically fails to adequately address the proliferation of messages containing grossly offensive and threatening comments toward them.
“I do understand it can be difficult for a website like Twitter to make decisions about what is a bannable offense and what isn’t,” Lawrence told HuffPost in an email. “But when you have people getting suspended for quoting ‘The Princess Bride’ on the same day that CNN reports Twitter admitted Alex Jones has violated their rules but won’t suspend his account, it’s pretty obvious their system isn’t working.”
Other violations Twitter has deemed worthy of punitive action are equally puzzling.
Last August, site suspended a user in Japan who celebrated a single mosquito’s death. In June, “The Wire” creator David Simon was suspended, apparently for a Monty Python–esque line instructing someone to “die of boils” after that person defended President Donald Trump’s immigration policy requiring the separation of children and parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. To the site, those were threats of violence akin to Jones’ threat to take up arms against the media.
(Inexplicably, Simon faced no consequences for previously tweeting “die of boils.”)
Twitter user Barbara Applewood said she was suspended last week for saying Sean Hannity, a public figure, is a “Partisan Whore.”
Casey Kaemerer was suspended Friday for calling right-wing pundit Laura Ingraham, another public figure, “white trash.” Both terms were considered hate speech, unlike Jones’ repeated efforts to demonize Muslims.
Similar examples of misguided attempts to crack down on Twitter abuse are easy to find. A user who only wanted to go by their Twitter handle, Insulin Cowboy, said they were suspended for promoting self-harm with “a GIF saying I was tired.” (The user told HuffPost they didn’t remember the specific image.)
Twitter user Max, who told HuffPost he preferred not to give his last name, posted a tweet in July illustrating the homophobic insults he endures on the website.
“I tweeted that people had been calling me a ‘queer cunt,’” Max told HuffPost over Twitter’s messaging service. “Someone responded to say, ‘I don’t care if you’re a queer cunt, I like you,’ and I replied saying, ‘I’m definitely queer and arguably a cunt,’ and they suspended my account for ‘promoting hate.’”
If Twitter was simply being overprotective of its users, plucking tweets from the site because some algorithm determined them to be harmful, the issue would likely become one of the site’s many in-jokes.
But it’s not.
The problem is not just what Twitter considers harmful ― it’s what the site doesn’t.
“I’d once reported a man for calling me ‘cunt’ 40 tweets in a row, and that didn’t violate Twitter’s [terms of service],” Twitter user Scarlett Parrish told HuffPost. “Someone else tried to track down my home address, a third guy threatened to rape me, that was all OK.”
Parrish was suspended for responding to a comment she found offensive by employing a Scottish insult for white people. “A racist got in my mentions and tried to lecture me about ‘white slavery,’” she wrote in a lengthy appeal to Twitter, also posted on her personal blog, in which she demanded to know why the company took action against her but not those who were threatening her.
(Unlike Jones, who is still able to peruse Twitter at his leisure, Parrish wasn’t even able to browse the site while her account was suspended.)
Similarly, in screenshots he shared with HuffPost, Max explained how he reported another user for telling him “the noose is waiting,” only to be told that that user did not violate any policy.
Twitter’s abuse problem persists even as the company has made pledges in recent years to tackle it. According to a February Vanity Fair feature, the culprit is a failure of leadership exacerbated by an exodus of talented technologists at the company. Twitter has been more or less successful in preventing users from promoting ISIS on the platform, and a campaign launched against Russian-linked bots resulted in the banishment of many such accounts. The everyday harassment and abuse continue, insiders told Vanity Fair, because Twitter leadership hasn’t decided how to define them.
Without clear goal posts, the company has not designed a sophisticated system of handling this problem. Until it does, user experience on Twitter is not likely to improve, and Twitter may keep justifying the presence of harmful accounts by conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones.