Twitter failing to ban Infowars isn’t misjudged, it’s deliberate

When you’ve had so many chances, and everyone around you is doing the same, an ommission is as good as a choice. 

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After months of debate about how to keep “fake news” from spreading, Facebook, alongside Apple, Spotify, and YouTube, has banned infamous conspiracy-theory outlet InfoWars from its platform. This comes after years of users requesting to have the notorious right-wing publication, known for spread hateful, and often dangerous, lies via online channels removed from the platform.

For those who don’t make it a habit of reading falsehoods written by gammons, InfoWars is arguably the greatest contributor towards making conspiracy theories mainstream. Founded in 1999, the right-wing, glorified misinformation generator became the magnum opus of Alex Jones, a man whose apparent mission in life is to disseminate misinformation as widely and as quickly as possible. Jones rose to prominence as a right-wing commentator after the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012, specifically for claiming it was faked by gun control advocates in the United States (a claim he’s actually in the midst of being sued for by the Sandy Hook victims’ parents.) He was then thrown into the spotlight following an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN where he infamously warned that “1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms.”

Until about 2016, when shit hit the fan globally, Jones was mostly a hack in-joke – someone you were only aware of if you followed politics closely. But then, after getting attention in the run up to the US Presidential election, gaining ties to the Trump campaign, and then to the Trump administration, Alex Jones became a mainstream alt-right personality. And with that, and more importantly, so did his conspiracy theories and talking points.

You could go on endlessly about the insidious evils perpetrated by Jones and InfoWars. But that’s not the point here. When looking at the sweeping list of major platforms that banned InfoWars over the last week, you’ve got some of the world’s biggest companies, biggest audio streaming site, and biggest social media platforms. It seems pretty holistic. However, there’s one quite major social media platform, that’s used widely for voicing opinions and sharing news, that isn’t on that list. A platform that is, too, like Facebook and YouTube, known for being a place where dangerous rumours and misinformation can spread. And one that has a problem with giving Nazis and fascists a platform that makes their otherwise niche views mainstream and magnified.

That’s right – Twitter is not on that list of sites banning InfoWars. A move which, at this point, cannot be anything but deliberate. Although Facebook did indeed lament over the decision for months, as did Apple and Spotify, it did ultimately decided to remove the literal conspiracy theory spewing outlet from its site. YouTube, for that matter, effectively decided to ban it overnight. So, when its peers and counterparts have already taken the risky leap to ban it, and others have followed en masse, how and what is keeping Twitter from doing the same?

Twitter’s slow death has been in process for quite some time now. In July, the value of its stock plunged drastically after it purged millions of bot accounts. Twitter’s expansion has stalled since early 2017, with growth only scraping 1 per cent. Over the last three years, the platform’s seen its daily active users plateau and in some cases decrease quarter-on-quarter. The future looks bleak. Millennials and Gen Z-ers are increasingly moving away from Twitter and towards social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat.

Essentially, Twitter is desperate need of a Plan B. Otherwise, it will fail to stay afloat. And one increasingly appealing option appears to be tolerating the alt-right’s biggest stars.

Twitter has made many half-hearted attempts to get rid of the fascists and conspiracy theorists. It banned Milo Yiannopolous (which, to be fair, did manage to smote his celebrity), stripped harmful accounts of their verification (such as Richard Spencer), and claimed it would start removing Nazis from the platform at the end of last year.

However, this tells an aggressively positive side of an unendingly depressing story. Hate speech still runs rampant on Twitter (even, sometimes, when it’s been reported) and the platform’s founder and CEO Jack Dorsey was outed for secretly meeting with the Republican Party to discuss liberal bias on the micro-blogging site earlier this summer. Hateful misinformation is rife on the platform despite Twitter’s absolutely meagre efforts.

Part of why this effort seems so tepid can be found in what gets users tweeting. Nigel Farage's account is a great example. Farage has 1.21 million followers on Twitter and gets around two hundred replies everytime he posts. However, a spike can be seen when he posts a certain type of content. When tweeting about something positive, like he did here when England one at cricket at the start of August, the response is business as usual with a few hundred replies and retweets and a thousand or so likes. But when Farage tweets about something controversial, like the EU, Trump, or even about InfoWars itself, his engagement explodes, getting him tens of thousands users liking and replying. This goes for almost any account, mainstream or not - negativity, arguments, and controversy sell on Twitter, whereas positivity, life updates, and similarly benign content does not. 

More and more, Twitter seems set on avoiding the one thing that could solve many of its problems in spreading hateful misinformation. That is, banning these harmful, notorious accounts. And hey, when you could be the sole platform for the alt-right’s most mainstream star, why would you? And why would you if those people are bringing in new viewers and new users that you so desperately need?

While InfoWars may not anymore, Alex Jones still sports a blue tick on Twitter, the platform's symbol of verification and legitimacy. Dorsey even tweeted late on Tuesday night that they wouldn't be banning him anytime soon. His videos disseminating his conspiracy theories, hosted on the platform itself, often get hundreds of thousands of views. If Twitter does truly care about removing misinformation from its site, there are glaring, gaping holes in its approach. But what feels increasingly likely is that those holes in its approach are not just being ignored: but that they are there, deliberately, by strategic design.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.