Was Twitter right in banning Milo Yiannopoulos?

Freedom to speak, or freedom to hate?

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Freedom to speak, or freedom to hate?

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“His crime? Allegedly directing a torrent of hate and insults toward Ghostbusters costar Leslie Jones, courtesy of his rabid followers and other likeminded folks on Twitter.”

There was anger. There was also hate, the pungent whiff of racism, and a light sprinkling of misogynistic vitriol. And then the ban hammer came down. In July, Twitter banned Milo Yiannopoulos, a technology editor at conservative news site Breitbart and the selfstyled “most fabulous supervillain on the internet.”

His crime? Allegedly directing a torrent of hate and insults toward Ghostbusters co-star Leslie Jones, courtesy of his rabid followers and other like-minded folks on Twitter.

Unsurprisingly, Yiannopoulos trumpeted the ban as a victory for him, saying that this was “the beginning of the end for Twitter,” supposedly because of the implications the ban had for free speech.

He framed it as an attack on conservatives and free speech itself, arguing that Twitter had “confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.” Further deriding Twitter as a “liberal echo chamber,” Yiannopoulos effectively set himself up as a victim who was unfairly censured for his conservative views.

That’s where things start to get sticky. While any half-rational human being knows that being a conservative doesn’t necessarily mean holding racist or sexist views and being a generally unpleasant person, Yiannopoulos’ statements still raise the question of whether or not the principles of free speech actually include such hate-infused tweets.

The difference between free speech and bullying.

This is compounded by Twitter’s reputation as an open platform for all voices, especially those at the fringes. The social media service was credited with playing a pivotal role in the Arab Spring uprisings, in addition to numerous other social justice movements in the US. The singular thread connecting these disparate movements was that Twitter allows all voices to be heard because of its open and public nature.

Yiannopoulos’ ban calls this into question. When you’re an open platform, there are going to be some voices that exploit this and use it to propagate all manner of unsavory views. ISIS terrorists are even known to use Twitter effectively, so Twitter clearly needs some form of policing or moderation. But Yiannopoulos isn’t a terrorist, and should he really be held responsible for the actions of the Twitter mob?

The answer is “yes.” While Twitter takes pride in hosting diverse views and beliefs, there is scant justification to allow what is essentially cyberbullying. Furthermore, US constitutional rights that protect free speech don’t actually apply to Twitter, because it isn’t run by the government. The US government cannot prevent hate speech, but Twitter can. And it is absolutely possible to silence voices that make digital spaces more hostile, while still preserving healthy debate and a plurality of opinions.

Freedom of expression can, and should, be conducted in ways that don’t involve calling a black woman a gorilla. The ideal itself is laudable, but that’s all it is – an ideal that must be tempered by the realities on the ground.

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