Twitter took a prominent stand against online abuse last week when it permanently suspended the account of Milo Yiannopoulos, tech editor at Breitbart News and a high-profile figure in the internet’s alt-right movement.
The suspension, which came after Yiannopoulos mocked “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones amid a torrent of racist and hateful tweets, was viewed by some as an encouraging step toward answering complaints of harassment, which have long plagued the social network.
For others — including Yiannopoulos himself — it was a sign that Twitter is willing to use its authority to curb speech it finds unsavory. For Yiannopoulos’ defenders, and those who supported figures like the troll Charles Johnson, the suspensions are a worrying indicator of a more tightly controlled social network.
Meanwhile, journalists including BuzzFeed editor-in-Chief Ben Smith are calling for a First Amendment of sorts for social platforms. The problem, according to Smith, is inconsistency and a lack of transparency about what constitutes abuse, and what constitutes an appropriate response.
So, who’s right? Was Twitter’s decision to remove Yiannopoulos justified? Can Twitter remain a platform for open dialogue if it weeds out individual voices? And what does it mean for journalists, who rely on Twitter to report and gather the news? Below is a question-and-answer session with Kelly McBride, the vice president of The Poynter Institute and its media ethicist, about the suspension.
In your mind, was a permanent suspension warranted in this case?
Twitter isn’t run by the government, and no one has “a constitutional right” to be on Twitter. A lot of folks confuse the rights granted to us by the Constitution with the contracts we enter into with corporations. The government cannot prevent you from expressing yourself, except in extremely limited circumstances.
Twitter can do whatever it wants, as long as it doesn’t discriminate against a protected class. It is perfectly legal to discriminate against mean people.
Yiannopoulos is employed by a right-wing news outlet. Twitter has also banned Chuck Johnson, a troll who calls himself an “investigative journalist.” Should Twitter be putting itself in the role of moderator here? Why or why not?
Twitter has to be the moderator. If you are going to have any standards at all, you must moderate. You can do it with a light touch or a heavy touch. But you can’t just be a platform. There have to be some standards for content.
In fact, one could argue that since women seem disproportionately to be the target of tweetstorms, by not addressing issues sooner, Twitter is discriminating against women, a protected class. No matter what Twitter decides in these disputes, they are favoring someone.
BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith has called for a First Amendment of sorts for social platforms. Others, like News Genius Executive Editor Leah Finnegan, has noted (as you did) that the First Amendment as written does not apply to private companies like Twitter. In your mind, do we need more protection for free speech online? Is the status quo sufficient?
Keep in mind that the concept of free speech is meant to allow the circulation of unpopular ideas. I wish we could figure out a way to get more diversity of speech and thought into the elusive marketplace of ideas that has become predominantly digital in nature, without rewarding the loudest and meanest or even the funniest speech.
I’m more worried about the many people who are afraid to voice their opinions because they fear attracting hate than I am about the people who spew the hate. In making these judgments, we have to consider the broader context. Whose voices are traditionally amplified and whose voices are traditionally silenced?
Some people have noted that, while Yiannopoulos was banned after a celebrity complained, many reports of abuse on Twitter go unanswered. Most people, after all, don't have the CEO of Twitter responding directly to their problems. Do you think Twitter’s response to these criticisms is even-handed?
It’s impossible to tell, because we don’t know how many requests Twitter receives and what method the company uses to sort out complaints.
If Twitter could precisely articulate what prompted it to act this time, then others might know what to expect in similar cases. Absent that transparency, we will fill in the blanks with our own assumptions. Many may think Twitter only bans White guys, or only acts when a celebrity gets the company’s attention.