October 28, 2016
The formula for mass internet outrage is increasingly nebulous; we never know what will set off the next online frenzy. But Milo Yiannopoulos, senior editor at Breitbart, seems to have it all figured out. As a particularly vocal voice of the alt-right movement, he has actually carved out a niche market for himself by exploiting the volatile, at times fickle cycles of online outrage. He has developed an audience by routinely saying outrageous things in protest of a culture he considers to be too mired in political correctness. Not surprisingly, he is a proud supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Yiannopoulos claims to detest what he perceives to be oversensitivity, while thriving on the recreational outrage culture he so often provokes. This provocation is precisely how he gets attention, and it’s simply not plausible that he actually believes some of the outrageous things he says. Yiannopoulos is a troll. That's not meant to be an insult; it's just the best term to describe what he does for a living, because in no universe could his actions be considered journalism. That is not to say Yiannopoulos’ asinine commentary does not have broader implications. The fact that he has amassed something of a cult following is evidence enough that his rhetoric is attractive to a specific segment of conservatives.
After the release of the new “Ghostbusters” film, Yiannopoulos wrote a review titled
“Teenage Boys with Tits: Here’s my problem with ‘Ghostbusters.’” Following the publication of Yiannopoulos’ dismal review, star Leslie Jones was bombarded with a large number of hateful tweets, many of which were racially charged. Yiannopoulos himself later joined in on the attacks against the actress. In one tweet, he described Jones as “barely literate.” Jones spent the day retweeting the most vitriolic messages, and later announced that she was leaving the platform due to her negative experience. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey invited Jones to direct message him about the situation. Subsequently, Yiannopoulos, along with many others involved in the harassment, were permanently banned from the platform. Twitter released a statement: “…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 … We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree.” Vox published an extremely thorough play-by-play of the whole situation.
Yiannopoulos accused Twitter of banning him for political reasons. He claimed that Twitter allows jihadists to use the social media platform but silences conservatives. In one comment published via Brietbart, Yiannopoulos said, "With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives." This remark was part of his broader strategy to paint liberals as tone deaf and irresponsible on the matter of global terrorism. It is a rhetorically effective strategy, but there are a number of specious assumptions baked into such claims. Yiannopoulos’ argument is a classic case of apples and oranges. Is it true that Twitter “allows” jihadists on their platform? One wonders if Islamic terrorists and other religious extremists should be presented with a box to check confirming their intentions before signing up for a service like Twitter. Would they check such a box? Probably not. So, it’s a distinct and challenging problem for Twitter to identify those ill-intentioned users. If anything, Yiannopoulos and his army of trolls make this problem decidedly burdensome, because Twitter not only must devote time and resources to removing jihadists, but it also has to deal with cases of harassment.
In February, Twitter released a statement that it had shut down 125,000 accounts related to the terrorist group ISIS. Twitter also stated that the company had significantly bulked up the team responsible for fighting such activity. According to the Obama administration, traffic related to terrorist accounts on Twitter has decreased 45 percent over the past two years. Still, new accounts are created frequently. It’s clear that this is an ongoing problem that needs constant attention. But why does that in turn have any implications whatsoever on the situation with Yiannopoulos? They are separate issues. In practical terms, this type of response is a non sequitur. It’s akin to a shoplifter who gets caught claiming to be treated unfairly on the basis that the cops are casually allowing murderers to go free, as if the shoplifter is the best source of information on that matter. It may be true that murders are occurring, but that does not mean the police are “allowing” it to happen. Cops are not omnipresent. They cannot stop all murders. Does that fact mean arresting the shoplifter is unfair treatment? Does it mean shoplifters should be given free rein to steal whatever they please while police officers devote all their resources to finding murderers? No reasonable person would make that claim. The same logic applies to Yiannopoulos’ complaint about Twitter. It might be true that Twitter should do more to stop jihadists from using its platform, but that argument is irrelevant to the matter at hand. The true horror of jihadism doesn’t make online harassment any less repugnant and disgraceful.
Let's take seriously the claim that Twitter banning Yiannopoulos violates his freedom of speech. As advocates of free speech often note, the most extreme cases are what truly test our dedication to the First Amendment. For instance, even though most people hate doing so, we've begrudgingly tolerated the Westboro Baptist Church holding demonstrations near the funerals of fallen soldiers. Yes, there is near uniform agreement that the Westboro Baptist Church’s actions are consistently and utterly despicable, but so long as the protesters maintain a reasonable distance from the actual funeral so as not to interfere with the event, they are exercising their right to peaceably assemble, and the government cannot prohibit them from doing so. That would be a valid point in Milo's case, if he were a U.S. citizen being prosecuted by the U.S. government. But he's not. He was banned from a widely used social media platform for purportedly violating the site’s terms of service. There's a major difference between the government’s response to the Westboro Baptist Church and Twitter’s response to Yiannopoulos. However, if you took Yiannopoulos' claim at his word, you'd be compelled to believe this whole situation is an untenable, outrageous violation of human rights on par with, say, the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei in China for his vocal criticism of the government. But, of course, those two situations are not even in the same ballpark. They’re not even on the same planet.
Is there a time and place for trolls in this ever-changing digital landscape? Probably not, but that's a topic for another time. The point here is that this is not a free speech issue. The United States has some of the most enduring, robust protections of free speech relative to any other industrialized nation in the world. Even under such protections – even given the most charitable version of events in Yiannopoulos' favor – Twitter banning Yiannopoulos could not be construed as an infringement of free speech. Individuals do not have the right to exposure on a corporation’s platform; Twitter is not legally bound to serve as a host for Yiannopoulos’ hateful rhetoric. A world in which that were the case would be a very absurd world indeed. The fact that Yiannopoulos clearly feels entitled to such exposure is just further proof that his position is virtually untenable. It was untenable before the advent of the internet, and it's untenable now. His banning is akin to a troll being banned from any typical online forum for whatever reason. The fact that Twitter is a large platform does not change the underlying principles at play.
There are a number of well-founded reasons why an organization like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one that typically champions free speech, is not decrying the fact that Yiannopoulos was issued a lifetime ban from Twitter. Yiannopoulos would be quick to say it's because the ACLU has a distinct liberal bias, and for the sake of brevity, let's assume that's true. Still, it is certainly safe to assume that this event's historical significance is utterly trivial. Milo Yiannopoulos getting banned from Twitter is somewhere between Phil Robertson being suspended from the TV show “Duck Dynasty” for making homophobic comments and certain businesses severing relations with Paula Deen after her unfortunate use of a certain racial epithet. There are an astounding number instances of actual infringements on free speech in the world. To mention these instances in the same breath as the situation concerning Yiannopoulos would not only be specious, it would be laughable. Despite any perceived biases, it's pertinent to make it clear to anyone reading this that the ACLU does more for the cause of free speech in a day than Yiannopoulos has done throughout his entire career as a “provocateur.”
Twitter’s ban on Yiannopoulos is simply not important. It’s not even on the ACLU's radar, and even if it were, the ACLU wouldn’t care. What is important is that people understand the meaning of free speech as a set of nuanced ethical principles. A TV personality making asinine remarks and being publicly chided for it is not the same thing as an infringement of free speech. An online personality engaging in systematic harassment of some unsuspecting individual on a social media platform and consequently being banned from said platform does not constitute a violation of free speech.
If we are to think about the right to free speech as an assurance for one to freely engage in a marketplace of ideas, it makes sense to make a distinction between access to the marketplace itself and access to platforms readily available to the public on said market. It's easy to conflate those two concepts. Conservative rabble-rousers seem to do it quite often. Let's imagine that you're in business as, say, a tire manufacturer in the United States. Now, it is certainly your right to start a business, should you have the means and wherewithal to do so. There are laws protecting your right to go through the startup process, and there are laws preventing others from engaging in coercive and violent acts to harm your business. Hypothetically, if someone were to set fire to your factory, or even attempt to spread libelous rumors about your business, you could take them to court. Granted, libel cases are difficult, but if you could prove that someone was intentionally spreading harmful lies about your business, and that your business suffered as a result, you'd likely have a good case. However, if there's a rubber supplier that refuses to work with you for ambiguous reasons, there's little legal recourse. Moreover, if a landowner refuses to sell you a space for a warehouse, assuming that individual is not discriminating against you based on your affiliation with a protected class (and it's important to note here that political affiliation is generally not considered a protected class), again, you have no legal recourse. You cannot force someone do business with you, nor should you be allowed to do so.
Let's try to think about the ban from Twitter's perspective. If the company indeed banned Yiannopoulos for political reasons, said banning would be somewhat self-defeating; it would play right into the narrative that Yiannopoulos espouses, which is that he's a downtrodden hero for the free-speech crowd. He's playing that card already. The fact remains, though, that Yiannopoulos has not been silenced. In actuality, he's been emboldened by this whole episode. Yiannopoulos actually publicly thanked Twitter for banning him, because he believes the whole situation has generated buzz about him. As questionable as some of Twitter’s actions have been in the past, we can at least assume the company was smart enough to know this publicity was inevitable. Yet, Twitter still decided to ban him. It logically follows that the social media giant thought it was a worthwhile decision, regardless of whether Yiannopoulos derived some glory from it. Why? Twitter is beholden to its shareholders and its user base — a young, predominantly liberal user base. This is not a crime, and it’s not unethical. It’s just a fact.
Let’s dispel another specious proposition: Twitter should not be heralded as a champion against online bullies. This ban likely wasn't an action Twitter took out of empathy for Leslie Jones, although it is entirely possible Dorsey did empathize with her. After all, Jones was systematically and relentlessly harassed, essentially for doing her job. What she experienced was absurd. But whether or not the executives at Twitter felt empathy for Jones is likely to be incidental, at least as far as it influenced the company’s decision to take action. Corporations rarely deal in empathy as a currency, except when it affects their bottom line. Ironically, this is a point that traditional business conservatives tend to see as intuitive. It increasingly seems that the ban was in part a public relations move, but one deeply rooted in pragmatism. Twitter banned Yiannopoulos due to pressure from users, due to a need to combat the increased perception that it does not adequately handle harassment, and most importantly, due to the fact that Yiannopoulos clearly did violate the platform’s terms of service. In what universe can Twitter’s choice be construed as unethical? There is a distinction between a company taking an action for purely ideological reasons and a company taking actions for reasons primarily related to ensuring smooth operations and its continued survival. Yiannopoulos unwittingly gave Twitter an ideal pretext to make an example out of him, and the company made an executive decision to do so.
If that sounds cynical, consider a hypothetical scenario in which Twitter's board, or whoever has influence at the company, does have an established liberal agenda, and that there's a direct prerogative at the company to silence any voices of dissent, i.e. “conservatives.” If that were really true, why is it generally only the fringe, relatively extreme cases that Twitter acts upon? Bill O’Reilly doesn’t have any trouble from the administrators on Twitter, nor does Sean Hannity, Anne Coulter or Glenn Beck. Couldn't it just be that most professional pundits, left or right, have the good sense not to engage in harassment and needlessly inflammatory behavior on Twitter? Could it be that lesser known fringe commentators and other trolls are simply more prone to violate Twitter's terms of service? Some statistics might put this into perspective. Generally, the more education a person has, the more likely they are to hold predominantly liberal positions on a wide number of issues. This positive ascription has a somewhat impolite inverse: The largely homogeneous intersection of voters that identifies with Trump, and in turn the alt-right movement as a whole, tends to be less educated. It’s an uncomfortable truth with which we must reckon.
That folks of the alt-right persuasion are typically less educated is not a fact to be celebrated by “enlightened” liberals or arrogantly held over the heads of Trump supporters. It's data that ought to be bemoaned by anyone who values civil discourse, specifically in the online realm where anonymity continues to reign supreme. People who find themselves roped in by alt-right rhetoric are being exploited. They have not been trained to recognize fallacious reasoning; Yiannopoulos is just one of the unscrupulous talking heads speaking to them on their level. So, it shouldn't be a surprise when his tactics strategically appeal to such a demographic. He's doing what a businessman does: exploiting a niche market. Unfortunately, as long as there is an ambient level of ignorance in the world, there is strong a market for trolls such as Yiannopoulos. The real world operates by market forces. Yiannopoulos is beholden to his demographic, and Twitter is beholden to its own. The situation is really that simple. This is merely a case in which the interests of two demographics were at odds with one another. It’s essentially free speech in action, on a macro level.
David Stockdale is a freelance writer from the Chicagoland area. His political columns and book reviews have been featured in AND Magazine. His fictional work has appeared in Electric Rather, The Commonline Journal, Midwest Literary Magazine and Go Read Your Lunch. Two of his essays are featured in A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics. David can be reached at email@example.com or via his website.