Twitter has been caught up in another controversy this week, after its move to ban a prominent troll sparked a freedom of speech debate
Milo Yiannopoulos, a writer and editor who tweeted as @Nero, was given a permanent ban from the micro-blogging platform as it moves to cut down the online abuse that is still rife on the service.
We take a look at the key questions of the story, and why there’s a vocal movement behind the #FreeMilo hashtag.
Who is Milo Yiannopoulos?
Born in Athens and raised in the UK, 32-year-old Milo Yiannopoulos went to university in Manchester and later Cambridge. He dropped out of both without graduating.
He later got involved in technology journalism and founded the tabloid website The Kernel, which he sold in 2014, and he is now the technology editor for the conservative website Breitbart.com in the US.
As a gay Roman Catholic, Yiannopoulos has been a frequent guest in TV debates over issues like gay marriage and the Pope’s visit.
However it was during the Gamergate controversy beginning in 2014 that he became widely known, after he positioned himself in opposition to gaming journalists who were criticising the campaign of harrassment and sexism.
This was despite the fact he had previously referred to gamers as “pungent beta male bollock-scratchers” on Twitter.
Since then he has continued to court controversy, and most recently he led his 338,000 Twitter followers in the barrage of abuse aimed at Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. More on this below.
What else? He refers to Donald Trump as “daddy”, equates rape culture with Harry Potter (“both fantasy”) and thinks of himself as “the most fabulous supervillain on the internet”.
So not the Australian chocolatey drink then?
— punyweakling (@punyweakling) July 20, 2016
No, but Australian Twitter users were confused when #FreeMilo started trending.
Down under, Milo is a chocolate and malt powder drink produced by Nestlé.
Many Aussies were disappointed to learn the hashtag was about freedom of speech, rather than a free giveaway of a chocolate drink.
Why has Twitter banned him now?
On Monday Leslie Jones began retweeting just some of the vitriolic and racist slurs that were being directed at her, making news headlines around the world.
This prompted Twitter into action, with chief executive Jack Dorsey reaching out to her:
But that was before she appeared to quit Twitter for good: “I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart. All this cause I did a movie.You can hate the movie but the shit I got today…wrong.”
In a statement to Recode, Twitter explained its action, without mentioning Yiannopoulos by name:
“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.”
So why is there a campaign to #FreeMilo?
Yiannopoulos has a huge following among what he calls the “alt right”, who have come to fight his corner in the wake of the ban.
It’s all about freedom of speech: you might not like what he has to say, but should he not have the right to say it?
The problem for Twitter is how it clearly defines when harsh criticism turns into abuse.
In this case, many of Yiannopoulos’s supporters believe Twitter has bowed to pressure because a celebrity was involved.
Suspending the top gay conservative voice of the world??
— Baked Alaska™ (@bakedalaska) July 20, 2016
The fallout for Twitter now is that Yiannopoulos could easily make himself a martyr for the cause of freedom of speech.
Indeed, he already is, releasing the following statement through Breibart:
“With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.”
“Twitter is holding me responsible for the actions of fans and trolls using the special pretzel logic of the left. Where are the Twitter police when Justin Bieber’s fans cut themselves on his behalf?”
“Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.”
“This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.”
Twitter has never dealt with its problem around trolls and fake accounts, and now that problem has come back to bite it.
Freedom of speech is the single most important issue facing Silicon Valley, yet its reaction to controversies has been kneejerk bans or short-term rule changes – usually without providing any explanation.
The major social media players like Twitter and Facebook need to be far more transparent, and lead a debate among their users and the public at large over what’s acceptable to post online, and what’s not.
So far all they have achieved is giving more fuel to the trolls.