From the Editor: On Milo Yiannopoulos, Twitter, and the Question of Censorship

A response to a reader concerned about our apparent support for "internet censorship."

Yesterday, one of our readers wrote to Flavorwire’s feedback email address, taking issue with our coverage of Milo Yiannopoulos’s ejection from Twitter. (If you’ve not been keeping up to speed with this, Yiannopoulos — a Breitbart commentator, Gamergate icon and general shitlord — was banned permanently from Twitter yesterday after Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones disabled her account in the wake of a concentrated campaign of harassment and abuse that Yiannopoulos encouraged and, arguably, orchestrated.)

I’d planned to write in more detail about Yiannopoulos’s ban, but instead I’m replying to our reader’s email in full here (with the author’s permission), because it argues a point of view that I hear expressed often in regard to Yiannopoulos, Twitter, and the question of “censorship” — so it’s a point that I think is worth addressing publicly.

First, then, the email in question, in full:

I am a longtime Flavorwire subscriber. I don’t just stumble onto Flavorwire because I’ve searched for something else, or allow another blog’s link to take me to you. You guys are in my email’s inbox, day in and day out. So, please take the following comment to heart, or to brain, or at least to the cochlear region, because on my part it’s coming from a good place.

I was reading Tom Hawking’s “Milo Yiannopoulos booted off Twitter” article today, and it was just gleeful in its praise of internet censorship. I feel like that is kind of a shame. I often disagree with viewpoints I read on Flavorwire (and other websites), but I would NEVER vie for censorship. I value that the world is vast in its diversity, that people THINK differently and express that difference of thought without fear of reprisal or violent backlash.

If Milo were a woman with a sexual harassment claim, or an environmentalist bemoaning some corporation’s carbon footprint, or
somebody who had apparently been fat shamed or something, or a homosexual who couldn’t buy some custom cake, I would imagine that Tom Hawking and Flavorwire would have had a very different opinion on the matter.

You can’t just be against censorship when it you agree with it. The whole point of the whole thing is “fighting to the death” for somebody’s right to say something you disagree with. I’m not even asking you to do that… just MAYBE, TRY to not be so gleeful every time censorship reigns supreme, and consider a point of view you disagree with.

Or don’t… Keep on, keeping on. Disregard the email and celebrate a world with one myopic, acceptable opinion… In the meantime, I’ll keep reading, until somebody censors you…

I’ll address the points raised in turn, as follows:

The world is vast in its diversity, [and it’s important that] people [be able to] THINK differently and express that difference of thought without fear of reprisal or violent backlash.

This is true. The problem is that under the banner of “free speech,” people like Yiannopoulos and his army of followers do their very best to undermine exactly that diversity. Tactics like those of the alt-right — doxxing, harassment, etc — are aimed at undermining the right of others to express their views without fear of reprisal or violent backlash.

Yiannopoulos responded to his ban by suggesting that “Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.” Like pretty much everything he does, this is perversely impressive in its disingenuousness and cynicism. Twitter is many things, but a “safe space” for those who disagree with Yiannopoulos and his ilk it most certainly is not. (How Muslim terrorists feel about Twitter is something you’ll have to ask a Muslim terrorist.) The site has consistently refused to censure users who have targeted those whose views they disagree with, which has made it the dogpiling platform of choice for campaigns of harassment. The goal of such campaigns is to make life so intolerable for targets that they leave Twitter and, ideally, the internet entirely.

As such, these campaigns are an abuse of the “free speech” they claim to be championing — free speech aiming to suppress the free speech of others. As Leigh Alexander, who has plenty of experience with Yiannopoulos and the far right “alt-right” he represents, wrote yesterday for the Guardian:

We tend to miss the fact that more than mere “speech” is involved. These campaigns are more than harmless self-expression of differing views — they are waged specifically with the intention to manipulate or damage the target’s public image, to push them into abandoning the platform as Jones did, or to frighten them into silence with threats worded just so that they’re creepy but not actionable.

If Milo were a woman with a sexual harassment claim, or an environmentalist bemoaning some corporation’s carbon footprint, or somebody who had apparently been fat shamed or something, or a homosexual who couldn’t buy some custom cake, I would imagine that Tom Hawking and Flavorwire would have had a very different opinion on the matter.

This is probably true, but there’s a false equivalency in this comparison. All the examples cited are situations where the balance of power is tipped against the complainant. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that these examples spring to the mind of our reader — in the vast majority of cases, silencing is something that happens to someone who is already being oppressed. The point is that Yiannopoulos isn’t a sexually harassed woman, or an environmentalist being slowly crushed by a giant corporation, etc. He’s a prominent commentator who has consistently used his position, and the power it affords him, to attempt to silence those with less power than him. (You might argue that Jones is a rare case of him crossing someone more powerful than him, and that’s why Twitter finally acted, although as a black woman whose rise to fame has been relatively recent, Jones is sadly not exactly Beyoncé in terms of influence and profile.)

You can’t just be against censorship when it you agree with it. The whole point of the whole thing is “fighting to the death” for somebody’s right to say something you disagree with.

I’m certainly not going to make any claim of impartiality here — I find Yiannopoulos’s views as reprehensible as his conduct, and while in theory I’m like any other good liberal, dutifully devoted to the cause of allowing anyone to speak, no matter how awful I find their views, I can’t really find it in me to mourn the loss of a platform for one of the shining stars of the far right. It’s important to note, though, that Yiannopoulos wasn’t booted from Twitter for his views. Twitter’s statement around his suspension was deliberately vague, but it emphasized that the grounds for banning are harassment and abuse, not divergence from some sort of Orwellian set of acceptable views: “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.”

It’s also important to note that Yiannopoulos has no constitutional or legal right to be indulged by Twitter — it’s a private platform, owned by a private company, and it can moderate its posts as it sees fit. For what it’s worth, social media content policies are often skewed toward conservative views — see Facebook’s consistent removal of posts by activists that don’t appear to violate any of its stated policies, for instance — which again makes Yiannopoulos’s bleating about how Twitter is “not safe” for conservatives all the more obnoxious.

At the end of the day, no one has an inalienable right to post on Twitter, Facebook, or any other privately-owned platform. I have often been critical of the way Twitter has applied its rules, but never of its right to apply them. The fact that Twitter has been consistently terrible at applying its own rules has allowed Yiannopoulos and his army of priapic fans to flourish. For him to complain about finally falling foul of the rules he’s abused and exploited for so long is pretty rich — but hardly surprising.

And finally, let’s not pretend that Yiannopoulos has been “silenced” — he still has free rein at Breitbart, a site whose popularity is rising along with the profile of its preferred presidential candidate. It’s not like his being removed from Twitter means we’ve seen the last of him — he’s merely been denied a soapbox and a source of publicity, which is perhaps why he’s so upset. His persona has always been more about attention-seeking than anything else.

In any case, let’s leave the last word to the man arguing eloquently here for the removal of abusers from Twitter:

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Who’s this writer? Why, none other than… Milo Yiannopoulos, writing in his now-defunct* (but not forgotten) publication The Kernel in 2012. It’s almost like his whole alt-right thing is a big old play for attention. Weird, huh?

Correction: A reader points out that The Kernel still exists, although it is no longer associated with Yiannopoulos.