Despite the unprecedented media firestorm surrounding this year’s Trumpian Republican National convention, Milo Yiannopoulos, the most fabulous supervillain on the internet (his words, not mine) managed to tangentially squeeze his way into the headlines via Twitter kerfuffle with Leslie Jones of Ghostbusters (A Democratic National Convention sponsor) fame. For the benefit of those that missed the spectacle, Ms Jones was in the midst of dealing with a substantial and targeted trolling effort, laden with misogynistic and more prominently racist abuse (Comparisons to the late Harambe were a particular highlight of the campaign), when Milo butted in remarking that receiving hate mail was nothing out of the ordinary. This soon escalated to Milo leaving derogatory comments about her appearance and literacy, and shortly after @nero (Milo’s twitter handle) was no more.
What resulted was an uproar over freedom of speech, and specifically Twitter’s lack of transparency over how people are suspended. Much has been said in arguments over first principles between maintaining freedom of expression versus protection of people from harassment, and I can do little more than retread those debates as far as philosophical considerations go.
Instead what I take umbrage with in this latest incident is another instance of a clear left-wing bias present in social media platforms, and the more insidious threat to free speech this presents. Twitter’s official statement on the incident laid out their basis for suspending him stating: “…our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.” His insults, while certainly demeaning, would be exceedingly hard to present to a credulous person as genuine abuse, notably more so than for the various Harambe tweets. Other public figures regularly receive far more insulting comments than Milo’s puerile banter, and quite reasonably ignore them. Which leads us to the other non-kosher behaviour, incitement, an even greater logical stretch than engagement, seeing as he came into Ms Jones’ Twitter feed midway through the torrent of abuse, and nothing in his tweets even vaguely resembles a call to arms. The rationale behind his ban is tenuous at best, especially in comparison to the kinds of things Ms Jones herself has tweeted with impunity!
Lord have mercy…white people shit
— Leslie Jones (@Lesdoggg) February 9, 2015
While bans are the most obvious and conclusive examples of the specific censoriousness of Twitter and other social media platforms, they are sparingly used, for reasons clearly apparent with the uproar over the @Nero suspension. More distressing for me is their liberal use of stealthier mechanisms over the past months to snuff opinions they disagree with in the political sphere. Last March, Facebook caught fire from the Republican side of the aisle as former “news curators” confessed to suppressing conservative news sources in Facebook’s “Trending” tab, as well as artificially injecting certain topics into the feed at the instruction of their superiors. Loud objections from major conservatives were made, and apologies and personal invites to Facebook’s headquarters were proffered by Mark Zuckerberg, but it is not hard to imagine the practice would have persisted without those whistleblowers, and there not much to stop Facebook from doing so if they please.
More recently, Reddit has modified the algorithms for certain pro-Trump subreddits to ensure their enthusiastic communities are unable to push their threads onto the front page, and conservative Twitter users such as Lauren Southern (@Lauren_Southern) and Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) have found themselves “shadowbanned”, a kind of blacklist with some of their tweets being forbidden from being retweeted, and others being concealed in the reply chain, essentially breaking up the continuity of their twitter conversations to typical viewers.
With all this said, as influential as these social media firms are in shaping current affairs, they are private entities and are free to take any political leaning of their choosing, as many forums do. However, especially given the massive reach of our contemporary social media titans, I take umbrage with their public affirmations of the virtues of free speech and neutrality while silently undermining them in an invidious social engineering effort. As people ostensibly against censoriousness and manipulation of public opinion, I think we can do more in our position as consumers to demand adherence from our social media companies to their stated ideals, and keep a vigilant watch for suspect behaviour from them, regardless of our political leaning.
And as for Milo? This latest controversy has propelled him to even greater heights, netting him a CNN interview and guest appearances all over the political media circus, and pushing the hashtag #FreeMilo to trend globally. The absurdity of Twitter’s permanent suspension of his account and the smug liberal responses to it are red meat for him, and I am sure he is already delighting in fresh adversaries for his crusade. Suffice to say, this card-carrying member of the Patriarchy will not be going away from the public eye anytime soon.