Culture

Twitter’s Asinine Speech Police

Milo Yiannopoulos (Yiannopoulos.net)

A peculiar thing happened on Twitter this week: I began to see Milo Yiannopoulos’s face everywhere. In my mentions, in my inbox, and in my stream writ large, I have been subjected to an almost never-ending torrent of Yiannopouloi. Like the eponymous character in Being John Malkovich, a single visage has haunted and pursued me around the portal. Here, there, and everywhere, it has been Milo, Milo, Milo.

The proximate cause of this weird replication has been the users of Twitter themselves. When last week, for no obvious or accountable reason, an administrator took away Yiannopolous’s blue “verification” badge, a host of his supporters rose up in righteous protest and traded their identities for his. First, they altered their accounts: Out went their photos, their bios, and their names; in came a thousand assiduous copies. And then, a hashtag game began. Its text? “Je Suis Milo,” natch. Ostensibly, this tag was a crude bastardization of the post–Charlie Hebdo rallying cry. In reality, though, it had borrowed less from Paris than from Senerchia. “I am Spartacus,” the rabble seemed to roar. “Je suis Spartacus; nous sommes tous Spartacus!” The message: We stand and fall as one.

Despite the indignant “free speech” talk, it is worth noting that Yiannopoulos was not removed from the service completely. Rather, he was “de-verified,” and for no more specific reason than “recent violations of the Twitter rules.” Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that the site failed to think this one through. As far as Twitter is concerned, its “verified” program does not exist to accord certain users an official imprimatur; it exists so that the public knows whether a person claiming to be a public figure is, in fact, that public figure. That being so, one has to wonder what taking away Yianoppolous’s mark achieved. Before the move, Twitter was hosting Yiannopoulos’s “problematic” output and confirming publicly that it was genuine; now, it’s merely hosting his “problematic” output. Even if I were to accept at face value the claim that the web needs “cleaning up” — and, unlike some Twitter executives, I absolutely do not — I would still struggle to comprehend the company’s approach. As of this afternoon at least, Yiannopoulos is as capable of tweeting as he was yesterday. He’s just doing so without a check next to his name.

Which is to say that there is no obvious connection between his punishment and his “crime.” A few weeks back, Yiannopoulos was suspended from Twitter completely for adding “BuzzFeed Social Justice Editor” to his online bio, in direct violation of the rules. Curiously, however, this infraction seems to have nothing to do with his latest sanction. Indeed, per BuzzFeed itself, Twitter explicitly confirmed that, “the removal of the verification badge is not connected to that incident.” In consequence, one has little choice but to conclude that Twitter’s terms and conditions are sufficiently nonsensical as to hold that the price for violating the verification rules is suspension and that the price for breaking the other rules is de-verification. Alice got more sense out of the Queen of Hearts.

#share#Lest I be misunderstood, I will note for the record that Twitter’s management is free to institute whatever rules it desires, however comical or opaque they might be. But, by the same token, Twitter’s users are free to call them out for their asininity. Unlike the government, social-media companies are not prohibited from indulging in viewpoint discrimination, and, that being so, there is little recourse available to those who find themselves singled out online. Except, that is, for those people to withdraw their business or shout, “you’re an ass” at the top of their lungs.

Twitter is an extremely useful tool, and it would be a genuine shame if it were to be rendered useless by caprice.

As a frequent user of the site, I intend to take the latter course. Certainly, there is a need for some rules — specifically those that prohibit actual threats or the clear incitement of illegal behavior — but there is no good reason that those regulations cannot perfectly shadow the contours of the law. In an ideal environment, users on Twitter and beyond would be punished in the same way that they are under the First Amendment: for the nature of their words and not for their political or ideological preferences. By singling out Yiannopoulos — and then by refusing to explain its decision — Twitter has revealed itself to be long way from that ideal.

Why does this matter? Well, because Twitter is an extremely useful tool, and because it would be a genuine shame if it were to be rendered useless by caprice. Insofar as the “verification” system is used to determine authenticity, it will add something concrete to the offering; insofar as it is used as a sparkling accolade that can be doled out and taken away on a whim it will serve as an ugly Achilles heel. Over the last half-decade or so, Twitter has become a standard part of online life, enjoyed by people of all political persuasions from all walks of life. It would be a disaster if, by the careful issuing of charters, the company’s management were to stick its grubby fingers onto the scale and transmute its service from neutral medium into pre-determined message. Love him or loathe him, Yiannopoulos isn’t really the focus of this story; at stake here is what favoritism invariably does to civil society. Bien sûr, Je suis Milo. Mais je ne suis pas seulement Milo; je suis tous les gens étranges et différents.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.

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