Opinion | Rules Won’t Save Twitter. Values Will.

By Kara Swisher

The platform won’t ban the dangerous liar Alex Jones because he “hasn’t violated our rules.” Then what’s the point of these rules?

Kara Swisher

By Kara Swisher

Ms. Swisher covers technology and is a contributing opinion writer.

Alex Jones at a rally in 2016.CreditLucas Jackson/Reuters

This week, Alex Jones, the persistently mendacious conspiracy-theory spouter — yeah, that’s a real job in 2018 — finally became the ultimate swipe left of the social media age.

Apple, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Spotify and most other major internet distributors banished Mr. Jones, either permanently or for some unspecified star-chamber-determined amount of time, for hate speech and other violations.

But not Twitter. Instead, Jack Dorsey, the chief executive, founder and tweet inventor himself, took to his own platform to explain in the high-minded tone that one takes with small children that Mr. Jones wasn’t suspended from Twitter because he “hasn’t violated our rules.”

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive of Twitter.CreditDavid Paul Morris/Bloomberg

In his multipart-tweet summer shower — it was not really a storm — he tried to make an exceptionally complex issue seem super simple, which is just like Mr. Dorsey. Of the recent crop of internet moguls, he is the most iconoclastic, employing elegant stylings and far-off stares that seem more hipster academic than the talented technical geek he is. Unlike others of his ilk who cannot hide their social awkwardness, Mr. Dorsey takes his inherent shyness and tries hard to make it look like he is floating serenely above the fray.

His tweets were a variation on that theme. Mr. Dorsey insisted that Twitter was “not taking one-off actions to make us feel good in the short term, and adding fuel to new conspiracy theories.”

Let’s ignore for a second that taking really valuable one-off actions can, in fact, be a very laudable thing and listen to more key-tapping by Mr. Dorsey: “If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction. That’s not us.”

Translation: Twitter is doubling down on the same squishy point of view that has allowed too much of it to become a cesspool over the last several years, and it has little intention of truly cleaning up.

I am down with Mr. Dorsey on the part about different viewpoints being expressed in a civil and even moderately testy way. There’s some value, after all, in force-reading all those opinions on whether a Colorado baker should make gay people cake or not. But the loosey-goosey way that he and Twitter’s rolling series of leaders have run the platform over the years (you can read all about that in Nick Bilton’s telenovela of a book, “Hatching Twitter”) has turned it from what could have been an unprecedented discussion and news platform into the last big refuge of the repugnant.

So it’s somewhat odd for Mr. Dorsey to be lecturing the rest of us about principles at this moment of high agitation, brought on in no small part by the twitchy, meaner-than-ever screamfest of Twitter itself.

While principles and rules will help in an open platform, it is values that Mr. Dorsey should really be talking about. By values, I mean a code that requires making hard choices — curating your offerings, which was something Apple got made fun of for doing, back when it launched the App Store, by the open-is-best crowd.

Let me say that I have nothing but admiration for the long-suffering trust and safety team at Twitter, which has been tasked with the Sisyphean job of controlling humanity and scaling civility, armed only with some easily gamed and capriciously enforced rules. How are these people supposed to do that when the company has provided them with no firm set of values?

Values would require that Twitter make tough calls on high-profile and obviously malevolent figures, including tossing them off as a signal of its intent to keep it civil.

And Mr. Jones is not even an edge case: His bilious lies, including that the murders of the Sandy Hook Elementary children were “synthetic, completely fake, with actors,” clearly sully the platform. Besides, let’s be clear: Twitter can change its rules to ban whoever it wants anytime, because it is not a public trust but a for-profit company.

Twitter has certainly appeared to have adjusted the rules for Donald Trump. While the president has not descended down the same demented rabbit hole as Alex Jones, many argue that he has violated various Twitter rules, by threatening violence (he did so against North Korea and later Iran) and by systematic harassment of people (the list is too long).

You can have whatever opinion you want on that, even as Mr. Trump still continues to play the medium like a virtuoso plays a Stradivarius violin. I mean this as no compliment, but he remains the most epic troll in Twitter’s pantheon. And, while it pains me to say this, he is a true tweet savant, however awful and deceitful his utterances sometimes are.

But Twitter famously declared last year that since Mr. Trump was president, what he said was news, and so he got immunity. (Is there a secret Rubicon that Twitter has in place that Mr. Trump cannot cross? Yes, many sources assure me that there is indeed a pull-emergency-brake plan for him, but it hasn’t come to that. Yet.)

But by that measure, the rest of us plebes, including Mr. Jones, should probably get no protection if we err, no matter how much we rant that tweeting is a right under the First Amendment. It’s not, because Twitter is not the government and it can decide what and what not to host on its service. In any case, if you get kicked off Twitter, you can always unload your twisted mind on your very own website. And it cannot be said too many times that freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from consequence.

All this is not to say that fixing Twitter will be easy; in fact, I think at this point it is nearly impossible. Add to that the fact that this is a global issue, making it hard to have any consistent rules that address the complexity of the world and, really, its deep and abiding ugliness.

But will Mr. Dorsey ever stand up to the uglies to protect the rest of us?

On Wednesday, he went on Sean Hannity’s radio show. His intent was to tamp down widespread rumors that Twitter was “shadow banning” — who comes up with these creepy terms? — some conservative users. The idea is that their posts mysteriously don’t show up in search results. Twitter did not do that, Mr. Dorsey said, “period.” But Twitter immediately and on cue lit up with criticisms about him pandering to the right.

It was a lot calmer just a week earlier, when Twitter held an offsite meeting for its staff members — some 3,500 of them. It was opened by Mr. Dorsey, who sat cross-legged on the stage, leading a 10-minute meditation for his most fervent followers — Twitter’s employees flown in from across the globe.

The event had a very Silicon Valley feel-good vibe, and veered awfully close to becoming a spoof of itself. There was Mr. Dorsey’s adorable mom onstage, there was a continuing joke about drinking “salt juice” (salt, water and lemon; part of Mr. Dorsey’s morning regimen, it was provided to all there), and there was what looked like a fabulous lip sync contest.

There were also, Twitter tells me, many serious conversations about the health of the platform and what the company needed to do to make it better. It is heartening to think of really smart people thinking hard about issues that affect the real world and trying to come up with solutions, even if they need a slug of salt juice to get there.

What I really hope, though, is that they don’t think protecting Alex Jones is the answer.

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Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the Recode Decode podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing opinion writer. @karaswisher