Milo Yiannopulos after finding out he was banned from Twitter (Photo: Courtesy of Facebook)
There’s a mass tantrum underway on Twitter right now, and it's going by several names: #FreeMilo, #FreeMiloNow, and #FreeNero are just a few. (The grossest is #FreeDaddy.) Now, be forewarned -- what you’ll see will either make you laugh hysterically or seethe with rage, so prepare yourself before clicking.
What’s happening on those hashtags is the result of Twitter booting conservative columnist and infamous troll Milo Yiannopoulos on from the social media site on July 18, apparently permanently. Yiannopoulos; his employer, the conservative website Breitbart News; and his thousands of fans -- his Twitter account @nero had over 330,000 followers -- have been on a rampage against the San Francisco-based company ever since his suspension was announced.
This has been a long time coming, no matter what his supporters say. Even other conservative columnists acknowledge that "Milo lives on confrontation," and he's been fighting with Twitter for quite a while now. Just this year alone, Yiannopoulos lost the little blue checkmark that showed his account was "verified" -- he actually asked the White House press secretary about how to get the check back -- and his account was suspended last month after he tweeted a series of anti-Islam remarks in the wake of the brutal massacre in Orlando.
But the straw that broke the back of Twitter's tolerance came after he wrote a scathing review of the new Ghostbusters movie and then proceeded to jump in on the attacks being levied at Ghostbusters actress and SNL fave Leslie Jones on Twitter. Some of what Yiannopoulos wrote in his review was offensive, such as describing Jones's work on the film as "flat-as-a-pancake black stylings." But it was part of a massive wave of racist tweets directed at Jones that resulted in her leaving Twitter.
"We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree," Twitter said in an emailed statement following the Jones incident. "We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it's happening and prevent repeat offenders."
But now that Yiannopoulos is gone, Twitter is seeing a repeat of something that basically happens every time the site has tried to reign him in. After the news of his permanent suspension was announced, Yiannopoulos announced at a "Gays for Trump Rally" that he was declaring war on Twitter, against a somewhat distracting backdrop.
Breitbart then went on the offensive, publishing multiplestories declaring that Leslie Jones and others should be the ones who are banned (note: calling someone "white" is not being racist). And the army of trolls that supports #FreeMilo has been lighting up the Twitter-sphere with threats of leaving the site, harassment of its advertisers, and claims that Twitter suppresses conservative views but gives terrorists and potential murderers a pass (which is not true -- the site has been actively removing accounts linked to terrorist organizations).
To be clear, this is not a fight about free speech. Social media companies are private companies, not countries, and they're allowed to have consciences -- you could say Twitter's decision is like eBay banning the sale of WWII paraphernalia that has a swastika on it. Twitter is fighting against hate speech, the kind the Alt-Right embraces , the kind that comprises the horrible harassment Jones endured. Twitter can't back down this time and let Milo sign up again, because that's exactly what he wants. He might say that being banned is the best thing that happened to him -- he's a martyr, apparently -- but if he's willing to ask the president for help with his account, it must be pretty important to him. And if Twitter's treating him as a test case, it would look pretty damn bad on their end to seem soft here.
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?