SAN FRANCISCO — With his arms folded, Jack Dorsey paced back and forth in a conference room at Twitter’s headquarters Friday afternoon.
The discussion quickly turned to how to rid the site of “dehumanizing” speech, even if it did not violate Twitter’s rules, which forbid direct threats of violence and some forms of hate speech but do not prohibit deception or misinformation.
Twitter asked that members of its safety team not be identified, for fear of them becoming targeted by internet trolls. “Please bear with me,” said one team member at the meeting. “This is incredibly complex.”
For about an hour, the group tried to get a handle on what constituted dehumanizing speech. At one point, Dorsey wondered if there was a technology solution. There was no agreement on an answer.
The discussion capped a difficult week for Twitter. For the past five days, the company has been embroiled in internal conversations about how to evolve and explain its policies for what can and cannot be posted on its site. The debates were urgent, fueled by criticism against Twitter for its lack of action against the posts from the far-right conspiracy site Infowars and its creator, Alex Jones.
While Apple, Facebook and Google’s YouTube this week purged videos and podcasts from Jones and Infowars — which have regularly spread falsehoods, including that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax — Twitter let the content remain on its site. In a string of tweets Tuesday, Dorsey said Twitter would not ban Jones or Infowars because they had not violated the company’s rules.
In the aftermath, many of Twitter’s users and own employees heaped ire on Dorsey and the company. (Sample comments included “jaw dropping” and “pathetic.”) Several journalists also picked apart Twitter’s decision to leave up the posts from Jones and Infowars, pointing to examples of the content that appeared to violate the company’s policies.
On Friday, to provide more transparency about its decision making, Twitter invited two New York Times reporters to attend the policy meeting. During the one-hour gathering, a picture emerged of a 12-year-old company still struggling to keep up with the complicated demands of being an open and neutral communications platform that brings together world leaders, celebrities, journalists, political activists and conspiracy theorists.
Even settling on a definition of dehumanizing speech was not easy. By the meeting’s end, Dorsey and his executives had agreed to draft a policy about dehumanizing speech and open it to the public for their comments.
In an interview Friday, Dorsey, 41, said he was “OK with people not agreeing” with his decision to keep Jones’ account live.
“I don’t see this as an end point, I see this as maintaining integrity with what we put out there and not doing random one-off interpretations,” he said.
But Dorsey also said that while Twitter’s longtime guiding principle has been free expression, the company is now discussing “that safety should come first.” He added, “That’s a conversation we need to have.” He said he was thinking deeply about human rights law and listening to audiobooks on speech and expression.
Karen Kornbluh, a senior fellow of digital policy at the Council of Foreign Relations, said Dorsey had mishandled the Infowars situation but added that dealing with matters of free speech on social media is highly complex.
“There is no due process, no transparency, no case law, and no expertise on these very complicated legal and social questions behind these decisions,” she said.
Just a week ago, debates around dehumanizing speech were not the main topic of conversation at Twitter. At a staff meeting at the time at the company’s headquarters, Twitter employees were buoyant as they watched a break dancing executive on stage, a cameo by Dorsey’s mother, and attended an after-hours dance party.
“In all my time at @Twitter, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen folks so energetic, enthusiastic, & ready to collaborate as after #OneTeam,” Del Harvey, head of Twitter’s trust and safety team, tweeted at the time.
Then late Sunday, Apple yanked most of the content from Jones and Infowars off its iTunes store, quickly followed by deletions at Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify. At Twitter, executives met Monday morning to debate their own response. They ultimately decided that Jones had not committed enough infractions to result in a permanent ban from the site.
Dorsey discussed that decision Tuesday in an internal post on Periscope, the live-streaming video platform owned by Twitter, according to an employee who watched the stream and who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Yet Twitter publicly kept silent about its process, drawing a barrage of criticism from users who said the site was protecting Jones and Infowars. Jones later went on Twitter to blast other social media companies for what he said was their censorship, and called on President Donald Trump to weigh in on the takedowns.
Jones did not respond to a request for comment.
On Tuesday evening, Dorsey finally posted about Twitter’s decision to keep up the posts of Infowars and Jones. In his tweets, the chief executive suggested that other social media companies had caved to political pressure by removing Jones’ content. He also said the task of fact-checking Jones’ sensational claims should fall to journalists on the platform rather than Twitter’s moderators, prompting confusion.
Emily Horne, a former Twitter spokeswoman, lashed out at Dorsey for blaming the communications staff for failing to adequately explain rules. “These decisions aren’t easy, but they aren’t comms calls and it’s unhelpful to denigrate your colleagues,” Horne tweeted, adding that leaving up Jones’ posts was “the wrong call.”
Internally, Dorsey, aiming for transparency, encouraged employees to post publicly about their opinions regarding Jones. Several hours later, Dorsey appeared on a radio show with conservative media personality Sean Hannity and tried to refute claims that the site is biased against conservatives.
By Wednesday, Twitter had started softening its tone. Harvey wrote in a companywide email that afternoon that the company would adjust its policies and accelerate its efforts to combat speech that dehumanizes Twitter users. Dehumanization, she wrote, was often a precursor to violence and therefore a top priority for the company.
That did little to quell the criticism. Late Thursday, CNN reported that it had found several examples of Twitter posts from Jones that violated the social media company’s rules. The posts were deleted after CNN’s report but Twitter said it had not removed them. Twitter said it could not confirm if Jones took down those posts and said it found only one example of those presented by CNN that appeared to violate its rules. Twitter later updated that number to seven examples.
In Friday’s meeting at Twitter, the 18 attendees, all standing around a wooden conference room table, debated topics including whether tweets that disparaged immigrants could be considered dehumanizing. One executive insisted that it was important for Twitter to enable debate about immigration policy.
“Immigration is a really valid political debate in many countries around the world and I think we want to make sure we protect the ability of people to say things like, ‘Immigration has affected my community. My local factory employs different people now; I can’t get a job.'” said Nick Pickles, a policy strategist.
Any new rules also had to allow victims of rape to openly discuss their experience online, Harvey said. “We don’t want to make people feel less comfortable,” she said.
Dorsey stroked his beard and nodded.
In the interview afterward, Dorsey said he was contemplating broader changes, including “systemic” solutions that aren’t a “one-off.” But those conversations, he said, have not been “explicit.” Twitter is early in the process, he said.
“We’ll talk more,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.