Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tamir Kalifa/Austin American-Statesman via AP and Michael Cohen/Getty Images for the New York Times.

Why Twitter Is Tolerating Alex Jones and Courting the Right Wing

Four theories.

Jack Dorsey is, by his own admission, “left-leaning.” So it might seem perplexing that the Twitter CEO has spent the past week sticking up for one right-wing conspiracymonger and sitting for a special interview with another.

Advertisement

First, Dorsey defended Twitter’s decision not to ban Alex Jones, even after Facebook, YouTube, Apple, and numerous other media platforms cracked down on the Infowars host for hate speech and bullying. “The reason is simple,” Dorsey wrote on Tuesday evening. “He hasn’t violated our rules.” (That assertion, echoed by Twitter Vice President Del Harvey in a letter to employees on Wednesday, was debunked by CNN’s Oliver Darcy on Thursday.)

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Dorsey appeared on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s radio show for an extended interview—something he almost never grants to mainstream media organizations. Hannity, perhaps the farthest-right host on Fox News (and its most popular), isn’t half as loopy as Jones, but he championed the baseless and harmful Seth Rich conspiracy theory. An evidently grateful Hannity showered Dorsey with praise for coming on his show and lobbed him softball questions.

Why, at a time when all the momentum in the social media industry was aligned against the likes of Alex Jones, is Twitter taking a stand in his favor—and promoting it on a right-wing radio show?

Few outside of Twitter’s executive offices can make sense of the company’s reasoning. In a piece that circulated widely on Thursday, the Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance found Dorsey’s stance on Alex Jones so absurd that she could only conclude that he and other tech CEOs “don’t give a damn.” While her critique was powerful, the conclusion doesn’t jibe with what insiders know of Dorsey, who cares deeply about Twitter’s impact on the world (and also, by some accounts, his own public image).

Advertisement

To get a better sense of what Dorsey might be up to, I talked with some knowledgeable sources inside and outside the company, who agreed to speak candidly on condition of anonymity. Even those sources, all of whom have worked with Twitter’s leadership team in one capacity or another, differed in their assessments. But between them, they offered at least four theories that help explain why Twitter hasn’t banned Alex Jones—and when and whether it might.

Twitter’s leaders are earnest in their intentions but politically naïve, especially about conservatives. That’s why they struggle to distinguish hateful lunatics such as Jones from run-of-the-mill right-wingers, and hacks like Hannity from more respected right-leaning journalists. At the same time, there’s still a strong pro–free speech ethos within the company, even if it’s no longer the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party”—so its leaders tend to err on the laissez-faire side. And, one source noted in Twitter’s defense, there really are good reasons for the company to resist public pressure to punish someone like Jones for his offline actions: Banning users for what they do off Twitter could open a Pandora’s box, especially when you consider the platform’s global reach.

While there’s probably truth to this theory, it feels a bit thin as an explanation for why Twitter has continued to tolerate Jones even amid intense scrutiny and Darcy’s reporting about his rule-breaking.

Twitter’s leaders don’t want to be perceived as partisan. That might partly be because they do tend to lean left, and they also could be overcompensating in response to an outcry by conservatives over the company’s “shadow-banning” policy (a phrase that Twitter rejects). According to this theory, they’re not reacting to any particular threat by giving Jones leeway or granting Hannity a one on one with the CEO. These are just part of the company’s long game to demonstrate to conservatives that it’s nonpartisan. This theory is buttressed by a Washington Post report that Dorsey had also met privately in June with a group of conservatives in Washington to mollify their concerns about liberal bias and censorship on the platform. And it squares with the account of a Twitter spokesperson who told me the Hannity interview had been planned well before the Jones controversy boiled over, and that the two were unrelated. By this account, Twitter understands that it’s taking a PR hit from the left and perhaps the center by not cracking down on Jones, but it’s more concerned about losing the trust of conservatives, who view the company with even deeper suspicion than most liberals.

Advertisement

Twitter’s leaders are worried about Republican lawmakers in Washington. In particular, they fear an attack on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a bedrock law of internet speech that lets social media platforms eschew responsibility for the content their users post. This theory shares in common with the previous one the notion that Twitter is trying to accommodate conservatives. But it differs by framing Twitter’s concerns as predominantly about politics and policy, rather than public perception. Indeed, Twitter increasingly has good reason to worry about the climate on Capitol Hill. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has been harping on the social media companies about liberal bias for more than two years, and has been building a case that they don’t deserve protection under Section 230. Recently, the “shadow-banning” controversy has persuaded other prominent conservative leaders to join his cause. Last week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican, targeted Twitter and Dorsey specifically, calling on Dorsey to testify before the Energy and Commerce Committee on “filtering and censorship practices on his platform.” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz told the Hill last week that he feels “victimized and violated” by Twitter. Even Donald Trump has joined the Twitter-bashing.

To be clear, the source who advanced this theory said it’s meant to explain Dorsey’s outreach to Hannity and Republicans on the Hill—not its tolerance of Alex Jones. It’s a compelling explanation that has received little attention this week, and there’s almost certainly something to it. That said, it’s worth noting that two other sources downplayed the potential legislative threat, doubting that Congress could pass something as complex and hostile to the industry as Section 230 reform amid the current chaos in Washington.

Twitter actually will ban Alex Jones, perhaps quite soon—it just wants to do so on its own terms. According to this theory, all the handwringing and hypothesizing about why Twitter is keeping Jones on the platform is misguided. Jones is not long for Twitter, but the company didn’t want to boot him off all of a sudden simply because Facebook, Apple, and others had done so.

Advertisement

This theory draws on the personalities and philosophies of Twitter’s leadership team, in particular Dorsey, his legal and policy right hand Vijaya Gadde, and VP of trust and safety Del Harvey. Gadde, a keen legal mind, has long pushed Twitter to make decisions based on consistently enforceable policies, rather than ad hoc public pressure or personal favors. (She explained the company’s thinking on Jones in some depth in a July interview with Slate’s If Then podcast.) Harvey has a background in law enforcement, specifically catching pedophiles. And Dorsey is a free thinker and idealist who doesn’t mind zigging when others zag. All would be glad to see Jones gone, according to this theory, but they’re determined to do it only when they have a hard-and-fast case based on Twitter’s own rules. That could mean waiting until Twitter has introduced some new policies, which Harvey has indicated are already in the works, against “dehumanizing” speech. That would help explain why Dorsey focused so heavily on “transparency” in his Hannity interview, where he did not commit to tolerate Jones but did commit to better explaining such decisions when they happen. This theory got a boost Thursday evening, when the Jones posts that CNN’s Darcy had flagged were suddenly taken down. A Twitter spokesperson said the company had specifically asked Jones to remove one of those posts; the rest were evidently removed voluntarily by Jones or a member of his team.

The full answer to why Jones hasn’t been banned probably involves at least a bit of each of the theories above. And it seems likely that there’s also a fifth explanation at work: Twitter is to some extent flying by the seat of its pants here, and its inaction may be as much a product of internal disagreement and hesitation as any long game or master plan. In other words, Jones is still on Twitter partly because Twitter is different than other social media companies in key ways, including some of those described above—but also partly because it just hasn’t found the right way to boot him off yet.