Judging by the outpouring of support that right-wing blogger Milo Yiannopoulos has received over the past few days, you might assume that the Breitbart editor suffered far worse a fate than the loss of the little blue "verified" check mark on his Twitter profile.
Since he was de-verified last Friday, hundreds of fans have tweeted out with the hashtag #JeSuiMilo. Others have changed their Twitter avatar to Yiannopoulos' headshot, in a show of solidarity.
Yiannopoulos, an infamous internet troll and well-versed contrarian, claims that Twitter de-verified him because of his conservative political leanings. His account hasn't been suspended or deactivated, but he says Twitter stripping him of the badge that verifies the account is really his jeopardizes internet freedom of speech.
"Effectively they have privileged progressive opinions over mine and reduced my power and influence in the marketplace. That's a real thing," Yiannopoulos told me via e-mail. "And they've done it on a whim, for political reasons, while refusing to explain why."
Twitter, which once called itself "the free speech wing of the free speech party," has changed a lot from its early days as a platform that protects and promotes unfettered free speech. A year and a half ago, when brutal images of ISIS beheadings began circulating on the social network, Twitter chose to ban the images, a decision that was actually seen as controversial because censoring anything was so out of the ordinary for Twitter.
Since then, Twitter has banned revenge porn, issued new anti-harassment rules, and instituted a policy for people to request the removal of content related to dead family members. In the past two years, Twitter's zealous commitment to free speech has evolved into a willingness to censor hateful, hurtful speech to nurture online debate and discussion.
Twitter declined to discuss with me the details of Yiannopoulos' account status, or why he was de-verified rather than suspended. The company confirmed that Yiannopoulos had violated Twitter's rules, and pointed me in particular to the company's abusive behavior policy.
Factors that the company takes into account when determining what conduct is considered abuse or harassment, a spokesperson said via e-mail, includes:
- if a primary purpose of the reported account is to send abusive messages to others;
- if the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats;
- if the reported user is inciting others to harass another user; and
- if the reported user is sending harassing messages to a user from multiple accounts.
Twitter told me that this is not the first time the company has "de-badged a verified user for violating our abusive behavior policy" but it did not respond to inquiries about how many accounts it has de-verified or under what circumstances, nor about what kind violation might lead to an account de-verification rather than suspension.
Some have pointed to a message Yiannopoulos sent last month as the tweet that damned him, though without clarification from Twitter, there's no way to know. (Yiannopoulos has said that particular tweet was a joke.)
It appears that de-verifying Yiannopoulos is Twitter's version of a slap on the wrist, a way of dealing with behavior it doesn't like without going so far as kicking someone off the network..
Judging by Yiannopoulos' reaction, the intended sting was certainly felt. Yiannopoulos suggested to me that perhaps companies like Twitter should either be subject to the First Amendment, or required to "transparently disclose the basis for their decision-making to avoid the notoriously opaque situation" that exists at Twitter.
Twitter's approach left some feeling unsettled, wondering what might come of a company like Twitter exercising its ability to influence debate. At what point does controlling harassment also become controlling the conversation?
At the law blog Popehat, First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza wrote that Twitter's decision was tantamount to taking a side in the culture wars, effectively signaling to the tweeting masses that company did not endorse Yiannopoulos' politics. Randazza suggested that Twitter had unfairly targeted a conservative account, under the guise of policing harassment.
[I]n order to test Twitter’s so-called newfound prevention of harassment, I have tracked a number of Twitter accounts and even have set up decoy accounts.
In what I've tracked, so far, pretty strong “harassment” emanating from accounts that purport to promote a "social justice" or feminist agenda remain unscathed – even with pretty extreme content, up to and including death threats. However, even slightly offensive messages coming from conservative voices wind up being disciplined.
Thus far, the experiment has not gone on long enough to actually call it "scientific," so I'm not going to say that the early stages of studying the bias in Twitter suspensions is ready for prime time – but it is certainly confirming what we hypothesized.
The challenge of creating a massive safe space online is the competing goals of creating a zone where anyone can speak and where anyone feels comfortable speaking. Perhaps the de-verify is a compromise: Yiannopoulos is still allowed to say whatever he wants, but the world also suspects that Twitter would rather he didn't say it.