We have previously discussed the troubling efforts to bar conservative speakers from college campuses and social media, particularly Breitbart Tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos who has become something of an icon for young conservatives. Twitter has long been criticized for banning or harassing conservative figures, including repeated suspensions against Yiannopoulos. Now, the company is under fire for permanently banning Yiannopoulos — just 20 minutes before his “Gays for Trump” event takes place at the Republican National Convention.
What is equally disturbing is that Twitter has remained silent about the reason for the permanent ban. The supporters of Yiannopoulos however cited a series of exchanges with Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones on the site. Jones, who herself has been criticized for racially insensitive comments against whites, reportedly spoke with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey after she complained about “abuse” on the platform.
There is no question that Jones has been subject to disgusting and racists attacks on social media after the release of the highly unpopular Ghostbusters movie (It is highly disturbing that Jones, who is black, seems to have generated the most criticism rather than the other actresses). Supporters of Yiannopoulos insist that he is often blamed for the comments of others on these sites, which are often caustic and racist. I find the comments directed against Jones to be highly offensive and Jones ultimately quit Twitter. Yet, Jones is a celebrity and, in a free and open forum, there will be inevitable trolls and vile commentators. It is the cost of free speech that we often have to put up with a degree of garbage, including racists like some of those attacking Jones. On our own site, we have a civility rule and I try to catch racist or personal attacks but I also try hard to minimize deletions on a site committed to free speech. That results in commentary that I often dislike or find offensive. Yet, such hateful commentators are often shouted down by more mature commentators.
Moreover, when people like Jones are subjected to racist or obnoxious attacks, it serves to lay bare the serious racial problems that we continue to face in this country. Removing evidence of such views just forces these commentators under ground and turns them into victims. As difficult as the trolls must be for celebrities like Jones (and I do not belittle the emotional toll even for a celebrity), these postings expose the problem rather than scrub it away through bans and sanctions.
I remain very concerned about the increasing content-based censorship on Twitter, Google, and other sites. Yiannopoulos has objected that he is being punished for the comments or actions of fans and trolls as opposed to his own statements. Moreover, he has raised what he views as a double standard in the treatment of groups like Black Lives Matter and more conservative groups. The New York Times reports “Twitter barred one of the most egregious and consistent offenders of its terms of service, Milo Yiannopoulos, in an attempt to show that it is cracking down on abuse.” Yet, there are no examples of such violations or even a recognition by the New York Times of the free speech implications of such terms of service when used to target people on the basis of the content of their views.
Twitter does need to explain this action. We use Twitter as part of our blog but it would be difficult for a site committed to free speech to use a company that abridges free speech, if these allegations are true. Twitter has an obligation to not only establish clear guidelines but address controversies like this one.
I am not well versed in the writings of Yiannopoulos, but I do believe that he has been subjected to unfair and unequal treatment on campuses. I continue to believe strongly that, despite hateful or obnoxious speech on social media, we are far better off in maintaining a free and robust forum on the Internet than engaging in private censorship. The desire to silence critics can become insatiable as companies like Twitter sanitize their media through bans and sanctions. Whatever problems people have with Yiannopoulos, he remains a strong voice for young conservatives. Critics should answer him, not work to silence him.
What do you think?