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viewpoint

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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