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Sticks and stones

| Monday, September 26, 2016

Breitbart News editor and self-proclaimed Twitter troll Milo Yiannopoulos has found internet fame in recent months for his outspokenness as a gay conservative in support of presidential candidate Donald Trump but also, perhaps more notably, for receiving a permanent ban from Twitter. The popular social media platform suspended Milo following an altercation between his rowdy supporters and comedian Leslie Jones, who didn’t seem to agree with Milo’s negative review of her all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot. Milo, a master provocateur if nothing else, responded to one of Jones’s posts, criticizing the actress for “playing the victim” as she complained about hate mail she received after the film’s release. Milo’s Twitter following took this opportunity to unleash a deluge of memes, GIFs and some racially-charged insults upon Jones, to which the “Saturday Night Live” actress personally responded by launching a flurry of swearing and insults back at the 338,000-strong legion of Milo fans. The Twitter account of the “most fabulous super villain on the internet” was shut down immediately that same evening.

Begotten from the ever-increasing influence of social media platforms, Milo Yiannopoulos is the archetypal mischievous little brother on the family road trip. He selects an easy target within reach, the readily-vexed older brother, and begins to poke and nudge him harmlessly to prompt a reaction. After a short while, the older brother loses his cool and snaps, hitting the little rascal and handing him exactly the attention he was seeking. The usual ending to the scenario shows the keeper of order, the parent in the front seat, turning around to scold the older brother (who claims to be the true victim).

Instead, Twitter opted to throw the little brother out of the moving car.

Regardless of your politics or beliefs, a massive social media platform suspending a user (for a reason other than spreading actually intimidating or harmful material) is not insignificant, and it should give pause to all internet users. In taking this action, Twitter has made it clear that they have no problem suppressing ideas and opinions that they determine unfit to be spread.

To be clear, websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, are private corporations and do not have any legal responsibility to uphold the First Amendment right to free speech. However, with the World Wide Web now a standard tool for communication and information-sharing, social media websites and apps have grown beyond their “status update” and “What’s on your mind?” origins in the mid-2000s. Twitter is now considered a source of news even more instantaneous than live 24-hour television broadcasting. Facebook’s “Trending” sidebar collects the latest in politics, sports and entertainment without the need to wait through a commercial break. Even Snapchat now highlights photos and videos from major global events like the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and the Olympics.

With this great power over the world’s consumption of information, then, these companies must also be held to a great responsibility. Social media platforms are now regular modes of communication and news broadcasting alongside telephones, television and radio, and as such they have the obligation to show the world’s 3.4 billion internet users an unfiltered, untainted exchange of ideas.

Instead of surveilling opinionated journalists or controversial politicians, the efforts of social media corporations would better serve as watchdogs for the directly harmful messages on their websites, such as those posted by the hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Facebook accounts utilized by Islamic State and other terrorist groups every day to recruit new members and propagate their warped ideologies across the world.

Ultimately, this internet censorship will likely only have a negative impact on the “social media etiquette” Twitter was hoping to improve. The more relevant take-away for internet users (especially preceding this social media-heavy presidential election) should be this: be alert. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Google and hosts of other sites promising you perfectly-tailored outlines of the day’s top headlines (“perfectly-tailored” according to their algorithms, anyway), make sure to browse multiple reliable sources of information. We can easily end up unwittingly entranced by the narratives and spins of organizations with agendas.

While this concern of “subliminal internet brainwashing” might sound like the stuff of conspiracy theories, a recent report from Sputnik News follows up on Sourcefed’s viral video that took Facebook by storm back in July, which claimed that Google’s autocomplete feature had been suppressing search suggestions that seemed negative towards presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The report explains that, while nothing can be proven without a direct confirmation from within Google, experiments conducted by the nonpartisan American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology have concluded that the possibility of Google censoring search suggestions and results should not be dismissed. With independent voters predicted to be such a major factor in the upcoming election, tampering with internet searches for the candidates’ platforms and remarks has been estimated by research psychologist Robert Epstein to affect as many as three million votes.

As the manipulations of these social media platforms become more and more evident, usage will plummet, and these Silicon Valley giants will hear the message loud and clear: people want to see the World Wide Web as it is. The minor annoyance brought by a few online trolls and their memes, GIFs, and insulting jokes is truly a small price to pay for the freedom of opinion. You know what they say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but 140 characters will never hurt me … unless they’re sent by a terrorist.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Daniel Esparza

    Yiannopoulos was not banned simply for having a different opinion, he was banned for breaking site-wide rules, which are made clear to those that sign up for an account to use the site and are readily available online: https://support.twitter.com/articles/15794

    Your analogy is also purposely misleading; Milo isn’t some little kid poking fun at some more powerful brother to elicit a response for fun, he’s a grown adult that incited harassment from thousands of followers, against one person. By banning his Twitter account for doing so, he was by no means “thrown out of a car,” because he still makes money as an editor for Brietbart, his YouTube channel, and the talks that he is readily invited to (like the one we invited him to last year).

    “…suspending a user (for a reason other than spreading actually intimidating or harmful material)…”

    Here, you either imply that because Milo himself didn’t verbatim advocate violence against Leslie, that he should not be held accountable for the outcome, or that those of his followers that did should be disregarded because nobody went up to her in person and hit her. This is an old chestnut; even if we were to disregard the mental and emotional effects on Leslie and people like her, you would still have to take into account the unreported violence that occurs as a result of validating racist and sexist behaviors. The violence that occurs towards a group of people for the sake of them belonging to that group is caused by society’s collective validation of both the behavior and the attitude that justifies it.

    “…it should give pause to all internet users.”

    There are plenty of internet users that do not spend their time harassing other users or finding ways to justify that behavior. They’ll be fine.

    “The minor annoyance brought by a few online trolls and their memes, GIFs, and insulting jokes is truly a small price to pay for the freedom of opinion.”

    I’m sure Leslie was just “annoyed.” Regardless, “freedom of opinion” does not exist in websites that are free of or use little regulation. Websites like 4Chan or Voat are, as you’ll find, terrible places to hold discussion or disperse media about serious issues because they’ll be crowded out by memes, GIFs, and insulting jokes, at the very least. Keep in mind that one is an anonymous imageboard, the other a anonymous content aggregator. Twitter is a social service.

    By all means, people should be aware if they have mundane opinions silenced; it’s bad enough that such immersive services are provided by businesses looking to maximize profit and longevity. This is not one of those cases, and denying someone a platform to express and direct hatred towards others is not a human rights violation.

    “If people cannot be trusted to treat one another with respect, dignity and consideration, perhaps they deserve to have their online freedoms curtailed.”

    – Milo Yiannopoulos, 4 years ago

    • Harambe

      Lel the article isn’t even about Milo

      • Daniel Esparza

        Well neither was the crux of my response; both OP and I used Milo’s Twitter ban as a backdrop to discuss the issue of censorship by social media service providers. My problem with this article is that it’s based on a terrible example of “censorship” and that it’s framed in such a way to imply that people like Milo are being denied a platform simply because they are disagreeing with someone, and not because they are inciting or engaging in harassment while validating violent behavior towards a group of people.

        • Harambe

          Bud if you’re “mentally and emotionally” affected by something you see online, there’s this neat little red “X” on most web browsers in the top right corner

    • Harambe