To ban or not to ban? The presence of Alex Jones on Twitter, and the decision on whether to un-presence Jones, has made a philosopher out of Jack Dorsey. A New York Times account of an emergency meeting of the Twitter “team” even described Dorsey as stroking his chin while ruminating on the delicate balance between truth and lies, not forgetting the balance between freedom of speech and Twitter’s share price.
As a conduit for information, Alex Jones is about as reliable as a broken sewer. But Twitter is hardly fragrant. How could it be, when it has welcomed people like Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos or, if you take your nuttiness in the left ear, Norman Finkelstein, who in July called Israelis “Nazis” on Twitter, and Hepzibah Nanna, who claims to minister to the spiritual needs of Barack Obama, but was exposed last week by Spectator USA as a mad conspiracy theorist?
The reasons that Professor Jack Dorsey was stroking himself so furiously at the Twitter team seminar is that there are three interlocking elements to this philosophical conundrum: free speech, the legal status of content providers, and the business of providing content. The original pact between the internet and the American state set those three elements in productive balance. Speech would be free. The internet companies would be providing content in the manner of telecoms companies, not printed media. And the liberty that this afforded the pioneers of this new field would help them turn it into a strong new sector of the economy.
This pact worked too well. Silicon Valley has monetised a popular uprising against civility and common decency. These are tedious virtues, onerous even to maintain, but they are the Norman Rockwellian foundations of democracy, from the town hall to the televised presidential debate. The 2016 election made it clear that the tide of digital effluent was washing into the chambers of Capitol Hill. Members of both parties propagated lies about each other online, and then carried the manners of their second lives back into their first.
Are the digital oligarchs so coddled in their adolescent cocoon that they are incapable of responsibility? Or, in another variation on teenage masculinity, are they simply too lazy to get out of bed and mow the lawn? Legally, Mark Zuckerberg’s half-witted suggestion that Holocaust denial was just an opinion is accurate. But Holocaust denial is plainly a form of moral degeneration and psychological maladjustment, pointing to a deep-seated civilisational sickness. So are the companion fantasies that “9/11 was an inside job,” and that the Rothschild family control the universe. And so are the manifold malignant fantasies, sexual and political, that clog up Twitter.
The internet colossi skim money from this traffic, from pornography, and from any other activity that can be aggregated into salable data. We used to call people who profited by trafficking in filth “pimps” and “pornographers.” Today, we are so impressed by the scale of the profits, and so scared of exclusion from the magic circle, that we limit our concern not to moral fundamentals and legal principles, but to the niceties of whether news is fake or true.
Facebook has already launched an expensive ad campaign, designed to tell us that we didn’t see what we know we saw on its pages. This is not enough. Nor was Google’s negative motto, “Don’t be evil,” which was only ever the digital equivalent of telling good men to do nothing. In the weeks to come, Twitter will no doubt try to avoid the legal responsibilities of a publisher while sliding ever closer towards a publisher’s task— selecting material that might interest readers, and excluding the rubbish.
We will not be able to trust the internet giants on what is fake or true so long as they lie to us about the nature of their business. They can tip money into every pocket in Washington DC, and they can persuade congressmen to say that Facebook and Twitter are telecoms companies de jure, but they will still be publishers de facto.
So long as the internet providers dodge this responsibility, they can maximise their profits by pretending to be a value-neutral platform, amenable equally to left, right, and centre. But once the providers start censoring and pushing their commercial partners — “curating,” as they call it — they will expose themselves as leaning centre-left, in the unthinking corporatist way of modern technocracy. That will reduce their fields of operation, and cost them massive slices of the market, if not most of the market. This is why they prefer to do as little as possible, while being seen to protest too much on billboards, or allow the New York Times to witness agonised chin-stroking live in the boardroom.
And those lost market shares will not go silently into the digital night. They will create platforms of their own, and income streams of their own. That might exacerbate the splitting of the United States into multiple rival media streams, each curating its own definitions of truth and lies. But that is preferable to having one stream and one curator, lying about his definition of truth. Imagine a world in which the internet grew up into a plural war of information, published on multiple independent platforms, and all of them regulated not by the clicking of racists and compulsive masturbators, but by the laws and customs of democratic liberalism.