Of course Twitter won’t get rid of Alex Jones – its bottom line depends on conspiracists like him | Social
It’s easy to mistake Twitter for a tech company. After all, that’s what they want you to call them. But Twitter’s real business, just like Amazon, Google, Facebook and the other giants of Silicon Valley, is disruption. By which we mean, leveraging new technology to aggressively takeover old industries.
Amazon is destroying retail, Facebook has muscled in on media, Apple killed music and a bunch more, while Google assaulted advertising. Twitter…well nobody is quite sure what industry Twitter disrupted. News? Journalism? Shouting at clouds? Nobody knows, least of all Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Which might explain why Dorsey and Twitter are the last holdout on a list of social media businesses reluctant to boot Alex Jones, kingpin of the Infowars empire, from their platforms. Apple could cut Jones from their podcast platform without concern, as the man plays no substantial part in their business model. But for Twitter, people like Alex Jones are essential.
Twitter, Facebook and the Google owned YouTube, flourish by training their users to generate content. Even a cursory glance at these platforms proves that most users are pretty rubbish at it. Pictures of your lunch and endless complaints about the daily commute do not a multi-billion business make.
Then comes along a content creation machine like Alex Jones. Loathe him, or loathe him, there’s no denying that Jones knows how to churn out clickbait, with all the single minded determination of a dung beetle servicing a herd of bison. Jack Dorsey probably isn’t personally interested in the dung beetles, but Twitter’s bottom line depends on them.
Twitter’s decision to ban far-right figures like Tommy Robinson is more cut and dried. Violent thugs aren’t good for anyone’s business. But the incendiary rhetoric of Alex Jones, with its fusion of far-left conspiracy theory and far-right libertarianism, is far more difficult for Twitter to condemn, because it’s exactly the kind of content that drives the social media business.
Real news, investigative journalism, high quality researched information: these are all expensive to make. If Twitter, Facebook or YouTube actually had to invest in good content, they wouldn’t make a penny in profits. Instead these platforms rely on low quality, zero investment, user generated content, and Alex Jones is the outcome.
Worse still, Dorsey’s response to repeated requests for Alex Jones’ suspension only highlights the exploitation inherent in user generated content. Not only does Twitter want its content free, it wants journalists to fact check and “push back” against the fake news that inevitably proliferates on the platform. Traditional news organisations invest heavily in fact checking and truthful reporting. Facebook, Twitter and others invest little to nothing. And Infowars is what we get as a consequence.
Jones, and other alt-right social media stars like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich and Paul Joseph Watson, are the Pavlov’s Dogs of content creation. They’re people of very minor talent, and even less intelligence, who are desperate for fame, and have learned through behavioural reinforcement which buttons to push to get the attention they crave.
Not all the popular content creators on Twitter are borderline personality alt-right demagogues. But anyone willing to invest thousands of hours of effort into populating social media with content, for uncertain rewards, is likely to be “out there” in one way or another.
Logan Paul literally hooted with laughter over the body of a suicide victim, yet continues to be promoted by YouTube, because at the end of the day these platforms need the 10,000 wannabe Logans to keep cranking out new content. If Twitter bans Alex Jones, how many Jones Jnrs, desperate to muscle in on Infowars’ lucrative trade in iodine supplements, will decide to cease working for free?
That Alex Jones must be banned from Twitter is beyond question. But we should also be demanding that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms turn to better business models. More and more people are voting with their feet and abandoning these platforms, because while Alex Jones toxic content might feed Twitter’s bottom line, it doesn’t feed our need for real, honest, reliable information.
Damien Walter is a freelance journalist who specialises in culture, technology and sci-fi
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