Harassment & Free Speech

The essayist who wrote this in 2012:

We are all by now accustomed to the periodic whinging of public figures after another round of drive-by shootings on Twitter. But the problem isn’t restricted to those who put themselves on a public platform. Just take a look at how people are talking to each other as well. Frankly, it’s terrifying, and it occurs to me that one of the great challenges of the next decade will be how we, as a society, manage those people unable to manage themselves.

… was banned “permanently” from posting on Twitter this week. A spokesman for Twitter told an interviewer for Buzzfeed, “People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter, 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 author of the essay quoted above, titled, “The Internet Is Turning Us All Into Sociopaths,” is one Milo Yiannopoulos, who seems to have decided that his article was more useful to him as a point-by-point, how-to-become-a-sociopath expository essay instead of a complaint against sociopathy. In the subsequent four years, he became famous as an Internet sociopath, celebrated as an “alt-Right wing” hero of some sort, a keyboard bully who never had the balls to say what he wrote to anyone’s face and yet wore a bulletproof vest for show as if he had even one time spoken truth to power.

If social media was one’s only means of receiving dispatches from last week’s Republican National Convention, one might be forgiven for thinking Mr. Yiannopoulos was selected by Donald Trump as his running mate; Milo was ubiquitous, especially because his ban was announced on the eve of the convention, so his supporters started to offer him up as an example of the left-wing’s insistence on silence as a means of achieving social justice. His ban is being offered as an example of the left’s purported disdain for the First Amendment.

For me, Milo Yiannopoulos, whom I had not heard of before last week because I am not young, is not an icon of First Amendment rights. Everything he posted last week stands merely an example of everything he wrote about four years ago and a brutal pointless rudeness in society that I find perplexing at best and horrifying the rest of the time. We all have the right to be an ass in this country as long as we respect the right of others to call us out on it. Milo Yiannopoulos vigorously crossed the line over into harassment.

What happened? Last week, Leslie Jones, who is in the new Ghostbusters film, started sharing on Twitter some of the ugly, racist Tweets that have been sent to her since that movie was released. Milo Yiannopoulos decided to attack her, and because his community of followers is largely racist and anti-woman, they joined in the attacks on Ms. Jones, a successful black woman, by the thousands.

None of this is unheard of in the world of Twitter. At its worst, Twitter is road rage taken to the keyboard, and it is possible that almost everyone with an active Twitter account has been harassed. (I have not been, not yet.) Where it diverged from “normal” Twitter harassment came when Milo posted an obviously faked screenshot of a Tweet from Leslie Jones’ account that threatened him personally:

 
Leslie Jones was posting real things on July 18, and the screenshot had a date stamp of July 19, but other than that, it must have been hugely frightening for her to see her account name, avatar, and actual account (@Lesdoggg) be hijacked in such a way.

She saw the screenshot in the only way she would have: when Milo shared it as part of a shocked complaint that she had threatened him personally and had urged that he be gassed to death.

The CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, took the rare step of personally interceding and contacted Ms. Jones via Twitter:

 
And so Milo was banned, and everyone seems to have taken the wrong lessons from this: the right started a #FreeMilo campaign on behalf of free speech and people on the left are cheering a sign that a major player in social media will begin to combat harassment on its playground.

It is most likely that Yiannopoulos was banned because the faked screenshots, a tool he has used before so he can plead fake offense in order to stoke real outrage, are sort of his calling card and Twitter had enough of him playing with its tools, and also because Jones is a celebrity. (A writer for Ebony points out however: “Jones’ three white Ghostbusters costars have been notably silent. Mainstream white feminists, predictably, have been too.” Kristen Davis was an exception.)

Twitter, a business, keeps some of its rules of engagement secret: how one wins a coveted “verified” account, for instance, as well as what one could do to get one’s account banned.

I emphasize my phrasing there: an account was banned. Is Twitter vowing to chase Milo Yiannopoulos, the person, from account to account, IP address to IP address, to keep him off the service? He is still live on other services anyway, still offering himself as a particularly non-useful wrench in disturbing society’s operations.

Once upon a time, I worked for a weekly newspaper. Even though it was a small-circulation publication, the fact that we ran a “Letters to the Editor” section meant that we received letters. Lots and lots of letters. Our editorial policy was simple: no profanity or personal abuse. (Twitter obviously lacks that rule of decorum.)

I, a young editor at the time, did not understand it. The letters were often awful, hate-filled documents, even when they were free of profanity and free of personal abuse. My boss, the editor, explained that these individuals wanted their thoughts exposed, after all, and we were helping to expose them. “Let them show the world what it looks like,” was her reply to me concerning ugly racism. “It is better when they are out in the open.”

Those who are against Yiannopoulos’ usual offerings of right-wing vitriol and who believe all the same that the First Amendment protects speech would agree with my former boss. Suppressing racism usually only bolsters its believers’ emotional connection with one of racism’s necessary components: a victim mentality. It is better when hate is exposed to the sunlight of reason.

Not personal abuse.

The First Amendment reads not-so simply: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Congress is the object of that sentence. “Congress” is who shall not abridge freedom of speech or the press. Twitter is not Congress. Twitter is a privately owned business with shareholders and its own understanding of its business model and rules.

The First Amendment means that I can stand on a box in a public square and read my 800-plus “Gad About Town” columns through a bullhorn and not be arrested by a police officer for disturbing the peace or for any other reason having to do with the content of my sentences. (The police officer, a public employee, would be acting the role of Congress.) In some countries, arrests can be used as a form of literary criticism by officials acting on behalf of the people or acting against the people; not here.

The First Amendment does not protect me from arrest were I to walk into a restaurant, stand on that same box, read my 800-plus “Gad About Town” columns through a bullhorn, be asked to stop by the owners of the restaurant, continue to yell my writings at the patrons because my brilliance needs to be shared, and finally be arrested. In that moment, I might be stupidly daring, but I would not be a First Amendment hero.

I do not understand the arguments that Milo is a First Amendment hero, as nothing about his story has anything to do with the First Amendment. Twitter is not a public square. It has many rules, and usually the only one that no one can break is the 140-character-per-post limit. Milo Yiannopoulos appears to have found another rule that can not be broken. It has nothing to do with him being a colossal ass-hat, which he is and can continue to be. It has nothing to do with him being a conservative, which he is claiming is the reason for the ban.

Conservatives are certainly welcome on Twitter. Conservatives who advocate violence are rarely silenced, even when they are reported:

 
In my limited Twitter experience, I have seen accounts purporting to be pro-ISIS publish clips of beheadings, other accounts purporting to be pro-Saudi Arabia publish the same clips, accounts purporting to be anti-ISIS and anti-Saudi Arabia publish the same and similar clips of beheadings. Images of violence do not often lead to a ban or a suspension. However, I have several online friends who have had their accounts temporarily suspended, usually for being too loudly anti-Islamic radicalism. (They simply launched new accounts under similar names, which led me to the question that I asked above about Twitter versus Milo.)

One friend was suspended for “having too many linked accounts.” His accounts were suspended at a moment the suspension could do maximum damage, just when a campaign was about to be launched. His campaign was against a case of government repression. Was Twitter doing a government’s bidding by shutting him up? Should I view my friend and Milo Yiannopoulos as two sides of the same coin? (I participated in a campaign similar to #FreeMilo on my friend’s behalf.)

Jesse Singal of New York magazine writes that Milo’s ban is one of several that Twitter has pursued:

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.

Strangely, the Milo Yiannopoulos of 2012 offered sage advice to the world about how to handle this issue:

[P]erhaps 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?

Twitter’s powers that be are aware that if every complaint about every insult was followed through with an officially mandated suspension or a ban, Twitter would cease to be after it had suspended or banned its entire user population. That is why it developed the “Block” feature. It is in the company’s business interests to not adjudicate every insult. It is also, sadly, not in its interests to clearly delineate the boundary between insult and harassment/abuse, a line that can be quite obvious in the real world. When the abuse resembles the abuse seen in that real world that we all try so hard to avoid, I guess we can say that that may be where the boundary sits. Perhaps we owe Milo Yiannopoulos a thank you for serving as a test case, but he is no longer on Twitter to contact him.

* * * *
I am indebted to Colby Klaus (@_lifestyled) for his service in preserving many of Milo Yiannopoulos’ Tweets on his own Twitter timeline.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for July 23 asks us to reflect on the word, “Punishment.”

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