WASHINGTON (Circa) — Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey continues to defend the platform’s decision not to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his InfoWars account like other social media sites did this week, but his argument for leaving the controversial content posted is raising new questions about his understanding of the danger posed by misinformation.
Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, and Pinterest are among the services that booted Jones this week, but Dorsey maintained the right-wing provocateur had not violated Twitter’s content policies. In a series of tweets Tuesday, he refused to “succumb and simply react to outside pressure” and instead suggested the media should do something about it when Jones tweets things that are untrue.
“Accounts like Jones' can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions,” he wrote. “This is what serves the public conversation best.”
Journalists did not take kindly to being told stemming the flow of Jones’ ravings is their problem.
“None of us are paid enough money to do your job for you,” responded ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman.
Others argued whatever wild claim Jones tweets out will already be read by his nearly 1 million followers by the time journalists have a chance to debunk it, and giving him more oxygen can be counterproductive at best.
“More media attention is precisely what so many extremists and other bad actors want, and saying the solution is journalists refuting every single falsity spread by Jones and his ilk goes against everything we’re learning about how this stuff works,” wrote Wired editor Caitlin Kelly.
Dorsey insisted he was not attempting to hand off responsibility for policing his own platform.
“One of the most important constituencies we serve is our journalist population,” he tweeted. “Has been since day 1. We don’t mean to shift the work here. We must build tools to help (and need to work together to do that). We can’t be a useful service without the integrity journalists bring.”
Amid the Alex Jones controversy, Dorsey is mounting a somewhat rare PR campaign, participating in a radio interview with Sean Hannity Wednesday. The chat was planned before the Jones dust-up in response to previous allegations that conservative voices are being marginalized on social media.
Hannity praised Twitter for not succumbing to liberal pressure to oust Jones from the service. Dorsey acknowledged this is a difficult issue to navigate, and he emphasized the need to be clear about the company’s policies.
“We’re trying to approach this with a very simple principle: how do we earn more trust?” he said. “And the way for us to earn more trust around how we make decisions, the algorithms, is try to be as open as possible about them. We haven’t done a great job of that in the past.”
Dorsey also directly denied conservative claims that Republicans are being “shadow-banned” from the platform. He said any actions to reduce an account’s visibility are based on behaviors, not ideology or politics, and models used to identify those accounts are constantly evolving.
“These are models that are looking at behaviors and behaviors of bad faith actors who intent to manipulate, distract, divide a conversation or to unfairly amplify content that they didn’t earn,” he said.
Although Hannity suggested the interview with him was the only one Dorsey had planned, the Twitter CEO also reportedly plans to speak to NBC’s Lester Holt and CNN’s Brian Stelter next week.
The publicity tour comes at a sensitive time for Twitter, which suffered its second-biggest single-day stock price loss ever less than two weeks ago. For the second quarter of 2018, the company reported a decline in monthly active users, with even more losses expected in the third quarter as it purges fake accounts. Dorsey has also faced growing anger from conservatives and demands to testify before Congress over Twitter’s alleged political biases.
Facebook is struggling with similar challenges as the spread of misinformation on social media falls under an increasingly harsh spotlight in the wake of the 2016 election. As the Alex Jones case demonstrates, Twitter has been particularly reluctant to act against posts that do not explicitly violate its terms of service, and Dorsey acknowledged the company has failed at times to justify its decisions.
“We do believe in the power of free expression but we also need to balance that with the fact bad faith actors try to silence voices,” he told Hannity Wednesday. “The only way to do this and earn trust is be open about it.”
Fighting fake news is not a new challenge, but it is one greatly complicated by the advent of social media. Conspiracy theories have always had their adherents, according to Elizabeth Cohen, a professor of communication studies at West Virginia University who studies media psychology, but they used to be easier to avoid, relegated to the far fringes and the supermarket checkout aisles.
“Conspiracy theories have a long history in our country. It’s part of our culture,” Cohen said.
She pointed to research indicating conspiracy theories make believers feel unique, and pop culture and movies tend to glamorize them.
“We used to see them in supermarket tabloids. Maybe there are some people who really bought into it, but others kind of recognized it was a different kind of journalism We don’t have the same cues we used to have,” she said.
When polls show nearly half of Republicans consider the media “the enemy of the people,” counting on the press to refute right wing conspiracy theories becomes a problematic proposition.
“Traditional media is kind of under attack right now,” Cohen said.
Compounding these concerns is research that shows people often have a virulently negative reaction to being shown proof their views are incorrect. President Trump is widely and extensively fact-checked by the press after rallies and speeches, but his supporters are rarely swayed. Journalists are already doing what Dorsey described, Cohen observed, and it has not been enough.
In 2015, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter published a study of people’s reactions to fact-checking during the 2014 campaign. They found only 34 percent of Republicans with high political knowledge viewed fact-checking favorably, compared to 59 percent of high-knowledge Democrats.
There are two big risks in this type of journalism. One is that exposing people to misinformation in order to show them it is false can result in them remembering the incorrect claim more clearly than the correction. The other is that being confronted with new factual information can lead political partisans to become more entrenched in their false beliefs.
“Fact-checkers need to determine how to better attract interest from less knowledgeable and informed voters and to effectively communicate with them,” Nyhan and Reifler wrote. “Likewise, it is important to minimize the partisan divide on the merits of fact-checking, which could undermine the perceived neutrality of the format and the credibility of its practitioners’ conclusions.”
According to Harvard Law professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, conspiracy theories often have a “self-sealing” quality, driving believers to doubt the credibility and trustworthiness of outside sources that try to refute them.
“It is comparatively easier for government to dispel false and dangerous beliefs that rest, not on a self-sealing conspiracy theory, but on simple misinformation or on a fragile social consensus,” they wrote in a 2008 research paper. “The simplest governmental technique for dispelling false (and also harmful) beliefs – providing credible public information – does not work, in any straightforward way, for conspiracy theories.”
All of this points to an underlying flaw in Dorsey’s vision of journalists as the arbiters of accuracy: the people most likely to believe fake news are the least likely be convinced it is fake by the real media.
“This isn’t just a cognitive issue or just a social norm issue,” Cohen said. “We also have this culture war saying there is no truth.”
Part of the fault for misinformation infecting the Twitterverse lies with users themselves who appear to be more attracted to lies than the truth. A recent study found fake news is 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than real news.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyzed 126,00 tweet threads centered on one of about 24,000 news stories that had been determined either true or false. Between retweets and responses, the false stories could reach tens of thousands of users, while the true stories never spread to more than 1,600 people.
Authors of the study stressed that they did not analyze the full content of the tweets and comments, and some people sharing or responding to the fake stories may have been trying to debunk them, but they also spread six times faster than the real news. While concerns have been raised about bots and fake accounts spreading misinformation, researchers found robots spread true and false stories at the same rate.
“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information,” the authors wrote in the March 9 issue of Science. “We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information.”
The removal of InfoWars content from Facebook, YouTube and other venues has sent the site’s iPhone and Android apps rocketing to the top of download charts. Reporters can question the accuracy of Alex Jones’ claims about gay frogs and Democratic coups all they want, but the people who listen to Jones probably are not listening to them.
“If the problem is that it’s spreading and real news doesn’t travel as well as fake news, then I don’t think that’s a viable solution,” Cohen said.