Playing Politics With Online Abuse
If you follow political drama on Twitter—or maybe even if you don’t—you have probably seen the ongoing controversy over the un-verification of Breitbart News columnist Milo Yiannopoulos. Earlier this month, Yiannopoulos, who is often described in such terms as “enfant terrible,” “provocateur,” and “troll,” was notified by Twitter that his account was being stripped of its “verified badge”—a blue checkmark given to public figures and organizations as proof that their Twitter profiles are the real thing. The reason was some unspecified violation of Twitter rules.
Yiannopoulos’s fans responded with a #JeSuisMilo hashtag, an obvious reference to #JeSuisCharlie, suggesting that the un-verification was an attack on free speech. Of course, Yiannopoulos has not been shot, unlike the Charlie Hebdo staff last year; he also hasn’t been banned from Twitter, or even—as a look at his timeline makes clear—cowed into propriety. But taking away the blue checkmark was clearly Twitter’s way of signaling that it does not approve of his speech.
In that, Twitter’s powers-that-be have a lot of company; even many of Yiannopoulos’s fans think he sometimes goes too far. His entire public persona, in the social media and in his columns, is built on responding to the outrage culture by saying outrageous things that may or may not be tongue-in-cheek. “The driving force behind everything I do is standing up to and ridiculing language police, scolds and nannies,” he told me by email.
Personally, I often find Yiannopoulos’s skewering of “social justice warriors” and Third Wave feminists hilarious and on target; I also often strongly disagree with what he does. (For the record: I have been on a panel with Yiannopoulos and have been a guest on his webcast.) It’s worth noting, too, that his enemies have a way of helping him. On the BBC program “Big Questions” the other day, British science journalist Connie St. Louis repeatedly made the bogus claim that Yiannopoulos was unverified for calling for someone’s assassination on Twitter, while comedian Kate Smurthwaite suggested he should be “locked up.” At this point, I’d be in his corner even if I found his antics utterly deplorable 100 percent of the time, not just 95 percent. (Yes, that was tongue-in-cheek.)
Whatever one may think of Yiannopoulos, Twitter’s attempt to—in his words—sit him “at the naughty table” was both nonsensical and troubling. First of all, if verification is about confirming identity, what’s it got to do with Twitter rule violations? Did Yiannopoulos stop being himself when he did whatever naughty thing he did? (Ha!) Is verification a badge of good behavior or elite status? An investigation by Adland reveals that it’s often connected to knowing someone at Twitter if you’re an individual, and advertising on Twitter if you’re a business.
Second, this incident highlights the arbitrariness and non-transparency of Twitter’s enforcement of its rules. When users are penalized for rule-breaking, they are never told what the violation is. Sometimes, it’s obvious; in many cases, as with Yiannopoulos, it’s not. Some have suggested he was unverified because of a recent stunt in which he tweeted about joining the notoriously left-slanted Buzzfeed as its “social justice editor” and put the title in his profile. However, Twitter told Buzzfeed this was not the reason. Another possible offense was a tweet saying, “You deserve to be harassed you social justice loser”; but Yiannopoulos later said this was an in-joke between conservatives.
Attorney Ken White, who blogs at the Popehat site, argues that the non-transparency is “a feature, not a bug,” since it protects the company from being tied up in complaints—and even lawsuits—about bias and double standards. Yet Facebook, an even larger platform, has been able to function while informing people of specific violations.
Third, speaking of bias and double standards: Verified Twitter users include people like the notoriously foulmouthed Australian feminist Clementine Ford, known both for general male-bashing comments and for nasty attacks on individual men as well as on women whose opinions she finds objectionable. One tweet of hers, later deleted, used crude epithets to mock conservative Australian columnist Miranda Devine. Another said, of Iranian-born columnist Rita Panahi, whom Ford considers “Islamophobic,” “No matter how hard she tries, she'll never be a white man.” Ford’s rejoinders to male critics include taunts about the size of their genitalia and invitations to perform sex acts with animals. If the blue checkmark is a seal of approval, does that mean Twitter approves of such conduct?
(Ironically, Ford was recently in the news for getting a young man fired after he called her a “slut” on Facebook.)
Also verified: Mother Jones editor Ben Dreyfuss, who recently responded to a Vox article arguing that being rich isn’t all it’s cracked up to be with a tweet that said, “Take a gun and put it in your mouth and pull the trigger.” (Granted, Dreyfuss eventually scrubbed the tweet in response to complaints from a Vox editor and from the author of the article—not the first time he deleted nasty tweets.)
So is there a war against conservatives at Twitter, as Yiannopoulos and Breitbart News have suggested? Well, not quite. Right-wing diva Ann Coulter, whose brand of journalism-as-trolling has some similarities to Yiannopoulos’s, remains verified despite a history of outrageous remarks.
But if “war” is a stretch, “bias” is not. Popehat blogger Marc Randazza writes that he has noticed a clear pattern in Twitter suspensions while tracking a number of accounts and using some “decoy” handles as an experiment: “[A]ccounts that purport to promote a ‘social justice’ or feminist agenda remain unscathed” despite tweeting abuse “up to and including death threats,” while “even slightly offensive messages coming from conservative voices wind up being disciplined.”
Randazza has not shared any of his data so far and admits that his informal study is in “the early stages.” Yet even White, the fellow Popehat blogger, who thinks Randazza is exaggerating Twitter’s intentional left-leaning favoritism, concedes that “Twitter’s line employees are almost certainly disproportionately liberal, and … evaluations of abuse complaints will have a liberal bias.”
Breitbart author (and resident liberal) Allum Bokhari believes the bias at Twitter is more conscious, though probably not a matter of company policy. “All Silicon Valley companies seem to have a cohort of hardcore SJWs [social justice warriors] who occasionally manage to get what they want,” Bokhari told me.
Indeed, as I warned in a Washington Post op-ed last fall, political bias may be built into the trendy crusade against “online abuse.” The progressive activists who dominate these initiatives, and get to advise major companies including Twitter, often unabashedly advocate double standards based on identity politics.
Last October, Wired magazine published a conversation with several such “experts” about anti-harassment efforts. The assumption that these efforts should focus on abuse toward “marginalized” groups, specifically “women, people of color, and LGBT people,” was pervasive throughout the discussion. (Of course, within this framework, conservative women, minorities, and gays almost certainly don’t count as “good victims.”) At one point, Del Harvey, vice president of trust and safety at Twitter, even expressed concern that tools developed to target and report abusers could be “used … against a marginalized group to identify who to target.”
Many point out that Twitter is a private company not bound by the First Amendment. “We feel that places like Twitter are a public place, and ought to be run like a public forum. But it's self-indulgent to mistake our feelings for reality or law,” notes Popehat’s White. True; Twitter can suspend or ban people for no reason at all. But if it acquires a reputation for doing that, it will quickly lose users. Twitter has a unique position, due in part to its self-presentation as a public square. Right now, it is a monopoly of sorts: for a journalist or blogger especially, a Twitter ban may not quite equal professional death, but it certainly amounts to a major loss of professional influence and status.
This does not mean that Twitter should be regulated by the government, of course. But users can and should hold it to its promise of offering a free marketplace of ideas. Can the company enforce anti-abuse rules to ensure that conversation is not drowned out by a torrent of abuse? Yes, as long as those rules apply equally to right-wing trolls and social justice bullies.