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Twitter Ban: Too Little, Too Late


Social media service Twitter took the rare step this week of permanently banning Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, after years of abhorrent behavior.

If you’re just catching up, the short version is this: Yiannopoulos has been the tech editor for right-wing outlet Brietbart News since late last year. His online infamy has its provenance in his support for GamerGate, which saw him pitching in to attack and encourage attacks on various women involved with video games and video game journalism. This made him popular as an alt-right provocateur, and he staged most of his antics from his Twitter account under the handle @Nero.

Twitter seemed content to tolerate this behavior, or at least respond to it only in a passive-aggressive manner, such as by removing his “Verified” checkmark. But this time, Milo went too far: he egged on harassment and abuse directed at Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones, to the point that she quit Twitter. Jones was targeted over and above her costars, it seems, because she’s black. Much of the vitriol she received was racially charged.

Why Twitter chose to respond to this incident and not the countless others Yiannopoulos has been involved with is fairly evident: he went after a celebrity, the star of a new film, and someone with enough connections that Twitter couldn’t ignore the possible damage to their reputation and bottom line. In short, it was a purely financial decision, a bit of face-saving instead of a display of genuine moral courage.

At the height of the GamerGate debacle, Twitter refused to do much of anything to combat torrents of trolls and harassers who attacked female game developers, their friends, and anyone even tangentially involved. It fell upon enterprising developers like Randi Harper to create third-party tools like the ggautoblocker to give Twitter users the ability to reduce their exposure to online harassment. For the most part, Twitter has remained silent on the way its platform has been used as a vehicle for harassment and abuse.

But since the company is under pressure to monetize their service–focusing on its usefulness as a branding and identity platform–a very public spectacle involving a star of a hit blockbuster film simply won’t do. What Yiannopoulos did to Leslie Jones was horrible, and yet not at all new behavior for him. This wasn’t a new low, or him going too far this one time. It was just another repetition of his established pattern, only in this instance he happened to go after the wrong person at the wrong time.

That he was finally banned comes across as too little, too late. If this is what it takes to get yourself booted from Twitter, then it is a hopeless platform. Someone should not be able to carry on like this for years, marking dozens of targets, directing tens of thousands of followers to threaten, doxx, harass, intimidate, and otherwise terrorize people who did nothing more than express an opinion he did not like, or even take part in something (like a film) that he did not like.

I’ll be honest. I actually have no idea why he doesn’t like Leslie Jones. Maybe he didn’t like the movie, or maybe something she said pissed him off, or maybe he’s just a racist sack of shit. I don’t care what, in particular, motivated this particular journey of the Milo Yiannopoulos Abuse Train. The problem is that it has happened over and over and over, Twitter was aware of it, and took years to do anything meaningful about it. Removing his “Verified” checkmark pissed him off, sure, but it was supremely petty and barely represented a slap on the wrist. If Twitter’s management really wanted to take a stand, why didn’t they ban him months ago?

Twitter released a statement about the decision, though they did not name Yiannopoulos directly:

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. Over the past 48 hours in particular, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension. We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree. 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. We have been in the process of reviewing our hateful conduct policy to prohibit additional types of abusive behavior and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted. We’ll provide more details on those changes in the coming weeks.

These are nice words, of course, but what really matters is action. Banning one high-profile abuser is a good first step, but it cannot be the last. Twitter needs to not only provide better tools to its users, but also to more aggressively monitor how its service is used for abusive purposes. There are, for instance, Twitter users in Middle Eastern countries who are using the service to track down LGBT individuals and report them to the government, which can get such outed individuals executed. Twitter has consistently failed to see obvious rape and death threats for what they are, as has been (content warning) amply chronicled elsewhere.

I don’t expect Twitter to somehow expunge all bad behavior from the service, keep users from being stalked, harassed, threatened, doxxed, and so on. This is an impossible task which no service of any size has thus far managed to accomplish. What I do expect is for the company to make real strides in addressing this behavior, rather than turning a blind eye to it the vast majority of time and then acting only when it threatens to embarrass the company and hurt its finances. That’s not brave and it’s not leadership–it’s just cynicism and greed.

As much as the tech culture within and surrounding social media companies like Twitter prefer to think they are making the world a better place through technology, navigating us toward utopia, the truth is that they are often making the world a worse place, taking us in the opposite direction altogether.

Photo by Xiaobin Liu