Twitter should ban @HistoryinPics and other accounts that repeatedly share false information
Last week, Gizmodo's Matt Novak published an article called "86 Viral Images From 2014 That Were Totally Fake." The single biggest source of fake photos? A wildly popular Twitter account called @HistoryinPics. The offending images, which were tweeted out to over 2 million followers, included a shot of Mahatma Gandhi dancing some sort of contemporary jig with an attractive young woman and a photo of John Lennon playing guitar with Che Guevara.
Both tweets have since been deleted, suggesting that whoever runs @HistoryinPics doesn't mean to mislead people. But like fellow popular peddlers of false information like @UberFacts, the account clearly values favorites, retweets, and followers over vetting for accuracy. Maybe Twitter should update its terms and conditions to ban this type of behavior... oh wait, it already does ban it.
The "Abuse and Spam" section of "The Twitter Rules" states that if "you repeatedly create false or misleading content," you may be subject to permanent suspension. That precisely describes how @HistoryinPics and @UberFacts operate. And yet, these accounts soldier on, racking up more and more followers with baldly inaccurate but irresistible factoids like "Apple now has more cash on hand than the U.S. government."
To make matters worse, neither of these accounts cite their sources. Kris Sanchez, the founder of @UberFacts, explains on his FAQ page that he doesn't cite sources because people prefer not to see links in tweets. Beyond being poor Internet etiquette, these accounts' refusal to cite sources make it difficult to quickly gauge the legitimacy of their tweets. A link and citation to Getty Images is a pretty good indicator that a photo is for real. A link to, say, Imgur, is less so.
Twitter's refusal to follow its own policies on these phenomenally popular -- yet widely discredited -- accounts makes all too much sense. As the company tries to convince more users to join its service, accounts that are highly active and broadly interesting like these are perfect fodder for new users looking for an easy value proposition from Twitter. It's also fair to say that the offenses committed by @HistoryinPics and @UberFacts pale in comparison to those committed by bullies and trolls who lob abuse at other users on a daily basis.
But there's nothing trivial about trolling the truth. Sure, no one ever got hurt by believing Lennon played guitar with Guevara. But people's lives have been ruined at the click of a mouse by misinformation enthusiasts in the past. And while it's ultimately up to each user to follow or unfollow accounts based on perceived reputation and authority, it's in Twitter's best interest to avoid becoming a cess pool of lies like so many other corners of the Internet.
Whenever these conflicts over Twitter's banning policies come up, there's usually a large chorus of righteous First Amendment supporters yelling "Free speech!" Whether Twitter bans a user for sharing a gruesome beheading video shot by Islamic State or if it bans accounts that regularly fire off abusive vitriol toward others, many believe users have a right to say whatever they want on the social network.
But people don't have that right. Twitter is a company, not the US government. As long as it doesn't police accounts based on racial or other discriminatory lines, it can ban whomever it wants. And if the company wants to continue being the best network for consuming real-time information, it should care more about the integrity of that information.