IT WAS THE SHOT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD: Breitbart writer and Gamergater Milo Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter. The self-styled “most fabulous supervillain on the Internet” is gone, but the question of why Twitter permabanned its most abusive member remains unanswered for many, including those who feel that Yiannopoulos’ exile constitutes a freedom of speech violation. Clearly, we have a lot of ground to cover here.
First things first: Milo Yiannopoulos was banned for inciting a racist, misogynistic dogpile on Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. That is not up for debate. Twitter does not state outright the reasons behind any permaban, but it’s clear that Yiannopoulos’ participation in Jones’ abuse — specifically, rallying his followers to tweet a flood of disgusting statements and images at her — was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Yiannopoulos poked fun at Jones’ response to the onslaught of abusive tweets. Although she initially blocked the accounts that sent her racist and sexist insults, Jones soon began screenshotting and sharing the worst tweets, calling out her abusers one by one. Yiannopoulos responded by doctoring tweets to make Jones appear abusive, and attributing the dogpile to her performance in Ghostbusters: “If at first you don’t succeed (because your work is terrible), play the victim.”
After Jones left Twitter, Yiannopoulos insisted that he “d[id]n’t have any regrets” about harassing her, and insisted that the creators and supporters of the Ghostbusters sequel had “attack[ed]” him, simply because he wasn’t a fan of the film. When the banhammer finally came down on him, Yiannopoulos accused Twitter of “holding [him] responsible for the actions of fans and trolls.” Jones has since returned to the social media platform, after what I can only assume was a lengthy conversation with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, which he initiated.
His harassment of Leslie Jones was not the first time Yiannopoulos behaved questionably on the Internet. Mere months after he founded The Kernel, the site became involved in a court case regarding unpaid contributors. When one writer attempted to contact Yiannopoulos about their compensation, he responded by “threaten[ing] to publish what he claimed were embarrassing details and photographs” of them, saying that their “childish, capricious behaviour” was responsible for “the majority damage” to his site’s reputation.
When Gamergate kicked off in 2014, Yiannopoulos quickly positioned himself at the forefront, decrying feminist video game critics and female game developers alike as “bullies.” This was somewhat of a 180 for the writer, as he had previously shown no affection for gamers, calling them “frustrated beta male[s]” and suggesting they may “need therapy and their internet connections taken away by mum.”
Yiannopoulos and his supporters regularly insist that they’ve done nothing to deserve punishment, often crying “Free speech!” and engaging in “extreme logical contortions in order to” maintain their delusions of innocence. But Yiannopoulos often takes his defense a step further, using gaslighting techniques to create the impression that his victims were in the wrong.
In an interesting twist, it appears Yiannopoulos may have predicted — and even advocated for — his own fall from Twitter’s grace. He closed a 2012 article for The Kernel, titled “The internet is turning us all into sociopaths,” by saying:
So perhaps what’s needed now is a bolder form of censure after all, because the internet is not a universal human right. If people cannot be trusted to treat one another with respect, dignity and consideration, perhaps they deserve to have their online freedoms curtailed. For sure, the best we could ever hope for is a smattering of unpopular show trials. But if the internet, ubiquitous as it now is, proves too dangerous in the hands of the psychologically fragile, perhaps access to it ought to be restricted. We ban drunks from driving because they’re a danger to others. Isn’t it time we did the same to trolls?
Although refusing to provide Yiannopoulos with a platform for his abuse is admirable, there’s no evidence to suggest that the permaban marks a new chapter in Twitter’s management of complaints. The only message Twitter has sent so far is that highly publicized harassment of rising stars like Jones will not be tolerated, which makes this all feel more like PR than actual justice. The results are the same, but they represent two different futures for women on the Internet.
Twitter might be the preferred social network of activists and journalists alike, but that doesn’t mean the platform is without problems. Online harassment is a women’s health issue, one that both Twitter and Facebook do very little to confront. Users have spent years in a fight for better enforcement and definition of the site’s harassment policies. No one denies that banning Yiannopoulos was a step in the right direction, but removing one man — even one of the most offensive trolls ever to grace the Internet — will not solve Twitter’s harassment problem.