Milo Yiannopoulos Isn’t a Free-Speech Martyr

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And just like that, the Reign of Milo Yiannopoulos on Twitter — a constant dumpster-fire drama of abuse and racism and shiny, blue check marks being both granted and taken away — appears to have come to an end. Yiannopoulos, the many-intern-having Breitbart tech editor-cum-provocateur, a.k.a. @Nero, has been banned permanently from Twitter.

It started Monday night, when Leslie Jones, one of the co-stars of Ghostbusters, was tweeting about some of the racist abuse she had received of late, and responding angrily to the harassers themselves. Yiannopoulos jumped in, accusing her of playing the victim to make up for the fact that the film has been poorly reviewed. Things quickly escalated, and soon Yiannopoulos went Full Milo, spreading fake screenshots of Jones saying terrible things, and calling her “barely literate,” a “hammy 80s black caricature,” and a man (thanks to Colby Klaus for archiving all this). Because Yiannopoulos has so many followers who post racist things — some of them claiming to do it “for the lulz,” but plenty of others actual, hardened Nazis and white nationalists, if their profiles are any indication — the results of his tweeting about her repeatedly were inevitable and depressing: The wave of racist and sexist harassment she’d been dealing with only intensified.

Soon, Jones, after having publicly pleaded with Twitter to do something, announced that she was leaving the site altogether. That same evening, a number of celebrities stepped in to express their support for her and their desire for Twitter to intervene, and CEO Jack Dorsey promised he would:

Dorsey followed through — last night, shortly before Yiannopoulos was set to host a “Gays for Trump” event at the Republican National Convention, he was informed Twitter had banned him permanently. “People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter,” a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel in a statement. “But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”

The response on Twitter was immediate, and seemed to overtake the Republican National Convention as the social network’s chief discussion topic. And if you’re familiar with the battle lines over online harassment and free speech (or with Yiannopoulos himself), it wasn’t surprising: Over the last 12 hours, conservatives have been caterwauling that this is an unfair infringement on free speech and a clear sign of Twitter’s liberal bias, launching the hashtag #FreeMilo; progressives have mostly cheered the move (#NeroBannedParty), viewing the move as a hopeful sign that Twitter will start to take its harassment problem more seriously.

Both sides are wrong — Yiannopoulos is no free-speech martyr, and cheerleaders of the ban are likely fooling themselves if they interpret this as any sort of sign of evolving Twitter policy rather than a specific instance of damage control that’s unlikely to lead to wider reforms.

Twitter has had an eye on Yiannopoulos for a long time. During a period in which the conversation about online harassment and hate speech has ratcheted up, Yiannopoulos has, relative to the size of his following, become one of the most controversial figures on the platform. In January of this year, he lost his “verified” badge for reasons Twitter never revealed, and last month, around the time he was trying to exploit the Orlando shootings at Pulse for self-aggrandizement purposes, he was briefly banned and then reinstated. He regularly posts racist, misogynistic, and abusive content, and, truth be told, has been doing so for years — he has long used his large and ever-growing base of followers and devotees as a cudgel against his perceived enemies and others he hoped to ridicule, many of them with a fraction of the fame and following that Jones has. More recently, as he has grown cozier and cozier with alt-right racists and anti-Semites, he’s exhibited less of an internal censor: He even put George Soros’s name in Jew parentheses.

In other words, Twitter has long had ample reason to permanently ban Milo. So why was this the incident that crossed the line? Since Twitter offers up so little info about why it bans or suspends users, any attempt to interpret one of its decisions involves a bit of tea-leaf reading. In this case, though, the answer is likely the faked screenshots that made it look like Jones was saying highly offensive stuff, including using the word “kike.” Yiannopoulos knew exactly what he was doing in blasting out those screenshots — just as he knew what he was doing other times he directed his rabid followers toward specific targets — and the only conceivable goal was to rile people up about Jones and amplify the hate. So whatever you think about Yiannopoulos calling Jones a man or a caricature or whatever else, it just isn’t hard to imagine Twitter viewing the faked screenshots as a step too far, especially given the author’s past misbehavior and subsequent warnings, and especially given the “inciting” wording of Twitter’s statement to Warzel.

But it’s likely more than just Yiannopoulos violating some specific rule. Twitter also stepped in because Jones, after tweeting about what she was experiencing the other night, gained enough support and publicity that the site felt like it had to step in — hence Dorsey reaching out to Jones directly. Twitter is a corporation, after all, and it is terrible PR for one of the stars of a movie that has already ignited several rounds of gender-and-culture wars to be dealing with a torrent of racist and sexist garbage at the hands of Yiannopoulos and his supporters. It’s not an accident that Yiannopoulos has repeatedly gotten away with equivalent behavior directed at much smaller names.

Either way, the claim that Twitter is engaging in a jihad against right-wing voices, that Twitter is now a “no-go zone for conservatives,” as Yiannopoulos put it to Breitbart, is laughable. Anyone who dips even a pinky toe into Twitter’s political waters knows that there is no shortage of conservative opinion on the platform, and that conservatives aren’t getting punished for expressing opinions — Black Lives Matter consists of violent anti-police radicals, Muslims are terrorists, etc. — that progressives find extremely offensive. Yiannopoulos’s suspension is far from unprecedented: The site booted Chuck C. Johnson for doxxing people — in one memorable instance, “outing” someone as “Jackie” from the University of Virginia Rolling Stone rape case who wasn’t, in fact, Jackie — and suspended Azealia Banks for what the Guardian described as directing “a number of both homophobic and racial slurs” at Zayn Malik, formerly of One Direction. In none of these three cases was the person in question suspended or banned for expressing controversial, unpopular political opinions; in all of them, they found themselves in Twitter’s crosshairs because they targeted individuals in specific, malicious ways that undeniably make the platform a worse and more toxic place.

But even if Yiannopoulos’s banning isn’t strictly unprecedented, it’s still a near-unique occurrence, involving as it did a bunch of famous onlookers, and not necessarily a sign of anything when it comes to Twitter’s future plans regarding harassment.

From Twitter’s perspective, there’s a certain corporate logic to remaining as vague as possible about which offenses are and aren’t ban-worthy. As soon as Twitter lays down more specific rules, after all, it actually has to enforce them, and said enforcement comes with various costs, both in terms of enforcement resources and users leaving or becoming less active on the platform. From a coldly corporate perspective, there’s a case to be made that it’s in Twitter’s best interest to allow as much discourse as possible, including much that is offensive — for liberals and conservatives alike to feel free to push at the boundaries of acceptable conversation without the risk of punishment. And that is, in fact, the site as it currently exists, the hysterics of Yiannopoulos and his fanboys notwithstanding.

Yes, some people are getting so turned off by Twitter’s deserted-park-with-a-bat-and-pervert-problem issues that they are leaving or disengaging, and I can personally attest to the company’s slowness in responding to complaints about tweets that are screamingly, obviously abusive. Plus, Twitter has been very slow to implement the sorts of technical tweaks that would make it easier to at least temporarily render a wave of abuse invisible — tweaks that wouldn’t involve a Twitter employee having to decide, on a tweet-by-tweet basis, what is and isn’t offensive enough to warrant action.

Overall, though, it seems clear that Twitter has made a calculated determination that if it instituted much stricter, much more tightly enforced speech guidelines tomorrow, it would likely lose far more users than it currently is to harassment. Today, it takes a special kind of asshole to actually get banned from Twitter.