For years now, Breitbart editor and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos has pushed the limits of Twitter, inciting his followers to wage vicious harassment campaigns against targets of his choosing.
On Tuesday—after much pressure to do so—Twitter pushed back. After Yiannopoulos inspired a rush of sexist, racist Twitter attacks against Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones, it seems Twitter decided enough was enough and suspended the alt-right icon's account for good.
Here's Twitter's full statement, via a company spokesperson:
"People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter. But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others. Over the past 48 hours in particular, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension.
We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree. We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it's happening and prevent repeat offenders. We have been in the process of reviewing our hateful conduct policy to prohibit additional types of abusive behavior and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted. We’ll provide more details on those changes in the coming weeks."
Yiannopoulos has been suspended from Twitter before, and back in January he was "deverified" for his often inflammatory online behavior. He is also not the first brand-name Twitter user to find themselves permanently on Twitter's bad side. Both right-wing troll Chuck Johnson and artist Azealia Banks have had their accounts suspended for good as well.
But Yiannopoulos' particular brand of internet trolling often has far-reaching consequences that reverberate far beyond the internet. After he penned a review of Ghostbusters that called Jones “spectacularly unappealing” and panned her Ghostbusters character’s “flat-as-a-pancake black stylings,” Yiannopoulos' legions of Twitter followers piled onto Jones and eventually drove her off Twitter.
Yiannopoulos, who is British, emerged as a mouthpiece for the U.S. alt-right movement back in 2014, after throwing his support behind Gamergate, a hashtag controversy that swept the gaming industry up in a brutish, misogynistic culture war. Yiannopoulos lent the movement legitimacy, riling up his then mere 85,000 followers as they piled onto women in gaming industry, harassing them online and in some cases even forcing them out of their homes. Yiannopoulos' particular brand of trolling is especially viral. Since then his number of Twitter followers had swelled to more than 380,000.
His influence on his followers is strong. It took less than 24 hours for Leslie Jones to give up trying to fight the troll army that came after her and swear off Twitter altogether.
Twitter, which once referred to itself as “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. Over the past year, Twitter has many steps to show that it takes harassment seriously, such as banning revenge porn and issuing new anti-harassment rules.
But Yiannopoulos' antics in particular have become a litmus test for how far Twitter is willing to go to stamp out harassment on the platform. When Twitter deverified Yiannopoulos back in January, there was no obvious incident that provoked it. It seemed that Twitter simply realized that putting the little blue check mark intended to signal a trust-worthy source of information next to a man most well-known for hateful spew was probably not a great idea. (Twitter did not comment at the time and Yiannopoulos claimed it was because of his conservative political leanings.) With Yiannopoulos' suspension, Twitter is taking a stand to say that such behavior does not belong on Twitter at all.
Yiannopoulos responded to the suspension on Breitbart's website, calling the suspension "cowardly." Here are his comments in full:
“With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.
Twitter is holding me responsible for the actions of fans and trolls using the special pretzel logic of the left. Where are the Twitter police when Justin Bieber’s fans cut themselves on his behalf?
Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.
This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.”
Twitter, along with other social networks, has walked a complicated line between preserving such platforms as places for uncensored expression and weeding out bigoted, sexist, hateful and harassing speech. For those reasons, Twitter’s abusive behavior policy is in many places vague. Violent threats are a no-no, as are attacks predicated on race and gender, but you can still call someone a fair number of names on Twitter and be well within the rules. The company made clear that Yiannopoulos' suspension was directly due to his behavior, but often such behavior goes unmoderated on Twitter, even when reported.
Before signing off of Twitter, Jones called Twitter out, arguing those rules simply aren't good enough.
Twitter, at long last, has signaled that it agrees.