Nearly a week has passed since Breitbart writer and Twitter provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos lost his verified status on the social media platform, and the fight over his blue badge has now turned into a serious debate over the parameters of free speech.
The verified Twitter badge is intended to let users know a given account is real and not an imposter. The blue check mark is also a status symbol. But the social media company took away that badge from Mr. Yiannopopulos Saturday, even though he has very well shown he’s a public figure and stands at risk of being impersonated.
Soon after, Milo’s allies rallied to his cause by changing their names and avatars to imitate his persona on the platform, and the hashtag #JeSuisMilo became one of the top trends on Twitter.
A BuzzFeed report found that Yiannopoulos likely lost his verification due to claims of harassment from feminists. For those who don’t follow Milo (you should; his Twitter handle is @Nero), he’s famous for flamboyantly trolling feminists and other advocates of political correctness.
BuzzFeed pointed to a tweet by an outraged feminist complaining to Twitter Support about how Yiannopoulos encouraged harassment. Soon after, he lost his badge. This isn’t the first time the Breitbart columnist had been punished by Twitter. In December, he was temporarily suspended for jokingly including in his bio that he was BuzzFeed’s Social Justice Editor.
Twitter has said the verification removal was not over that joke, but over other unnnamed “violations of the Twitter rules.” The social media platform told Yiannopoulous that further violations would result in “permanent account suspension.”
This decision, which may seem minor on the surface, reveals a troubling possibility for free expression’s future health.
By removing Yiannopoulos’s check mark, Twitter announced to the world that his conservative speech is not particularly welcome on the social media platform. “Effectively they have privileged progressive opinions over mine and reduced my power and influence in the marketplace. That’s a real thing,” Yiannopoulos told Fusion. “And they’ve done it on a whim, for political reasons, while refusing to explain why.”
As a private company, Twitter is well within legal bounds to run its service the way it sees fit. The right to tweet is not necessarily covered by the First Amendment.
But this opens up the problem of leaving Silicon Valley companies with the power of determining which speech is permissible in our society. In today’s age, if you or your content is not on Facebook and Twitter, you don’t really exist in the marketplace of ideas. Millions of people primarily receive their news and information through social media sites, and writers and politicians now depend heavily on their access to these platforms to reach those millions of people.
For those people not campaigning or writing very important columns, these sites serve as an important tool for getting information from sources they trust, connecting with like-minded individuals and airing their opinion in a public forum.
With so many people relying on these formats to gratify their civic desire to engage in opinion-making, companies like Twitter have tremendous power to shape the discourse in America and all over the world.
As so wisely stated by Ben Parker to Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility, and the responsibility for these companies is to preserve and respect free speech.
For the most part, Twitter has done a good job in upholding this responsibility and has allowed all kinds of speech to go uncensored on its service. But left-wing outrage over this or that boogeyman spouting off “offensive” views will inevitably become a factor in what speech is allowed to be sanctioned in tweets. As was the case for Yiannopoulos, a few incensed feminists were able to claim harassment and bring down punishment on their ideological foe.
This incident could set a precedent for how speech is handled in the future. Whichever prized special interest group claims the most offense at a certain tweet could find themselves rewarded with their enemies being suspended or otherwise silenced into submission — all with the help of Twitter Support.
And this is more than an issue of a person having the ability to fully use the service of a given social media platform. It’s about an individual and a community letting free speech have a space in the public forums of the 21st century. Yes, Twitter and others are private companies, but that shouldn’t sanctify their power to police speech in the new era.
And there’s a lot of governments and powerful groups that would like these platforms to do just that. Germany is demanding that social media sites ban all speech Angela Merkel’s government deems hateful and, so far, Facebook and others have acquiesced to this request. France President Francois Hollande wants to hold these companies “accountable” for so-called “hate speech” that’s uttered on their platforms. The influential, left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center has tried to browbeat online networks to take down posts the group doesn’t like.
If social media outlets do give in to the temptation to start policing offensive speech, it will only serve to benefit the Left. Last year, we saw many of these companies reveal their left-wing biases in their vows to boycott Indiana over the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, ban the sales of Confederate flags and adoption of symbols celebrating the legalization of gay marriage. (RELATED: The Biggest Threat To Free Expression Isn’t The Government)
Accusations of hateful speech will almost certainly be taken seriously if it it comes from a social justice warrior (SJW) and not a social conservative.
Those accounts that find themselves banned or suspended would effectively see their voice muffled in the contemporary public discourse. As previously mentioned, if you are not allowed on these platforms, your ability to engage the public is greatly minimized.
After #JeSuisMilo, Twitter should remember its great responsibility and uphold free speech against the flood of SJW tears.