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Can Twitter 'Police the Madness' on Its Platform? The Fallout From the Milo Yiannopoulos Controversy Suggests Not. (Updated)

Where does the harassment line get drawn? It's not any clearer today. / Shutterstock

[See numerous updates below since this post was first published.]

Milo Yiannopoulos is a British writer who works for the right-wing online tabloid Breitbart. He is one of the most visible supporters of the Gamergate movement, with a large and loyal online audience. On Twitter, his handle is @Nero and, as of this publication, he has almost 140,000 followers.

And until Friday evening, his Twitter account was verified.

That night, the social network revoked his blue check, because of — according to an email it sent Yiannopoulos that he posted on Twitter — “recent violations of the Twitter rules.”

It’s not clear what post caused the action and Twitter isn’t talking.

BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz pointed toward a tweet from a Twitter executive (who says he wasn’t speaking for the company), which suggests that the removal was prompted by Yiannopoulos telling someone, “You deserve to be harassed, you social justice loser.”

(Update: Yiannopoulos reached out to clarify that this remark was a joke between friends. Twitter isn’t offering any information on why they removed the blue check, so we don’t know which was the offending tweet that prompted the company’s actions.)

If that was what set Twitter off, this remark could possibly constitute a violation of Twitter’s rules for using the service (“You may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others”). In any case, the removal of verification is most definitely a public dressing-down of Yiannopoulos by the company.

But it begs the larger question: If it was that bad, why didn’t Twitter just delete his account?

(Update: Though, as he wrote us after this posted, Yiannopoulos’s “You deserve to be harassed” tweet might have been intended as a joke, there are still many incidences of him veering closely to violations of Twitter’s code of conduct, which might have prompted his verification removal. To be fair, many do that too and why it singled him out is also something Twitter will not comment on.)

In the last few days, for example, he has tweeted about a “Muslim rape epidemic” in Europe (“You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of … religious affiliation”).

(Update: Yiannopoulos later sent Re/code an email saying that was also a joke and that Re/code was “deliberately misrepresenting it to suggest bigotry.” We assert that we were not doing so and just pointing out the tweet itself since it could have been Twitter’s reason for verification removal.)

He has also been accused of “dogpiling” people on the Internet, which is publicly arguing with or calling attention to his critics and then baiting his followers into filling their Twitter mentions with noxious hate.

(Update: Yiannopoulos said in a later email that this is one critic’s opinion about dogpiling and that Re/code should have sought comment from him on baiting his followers, alleging we were accusing him of a crime, which we assert we did not.)

Even if Yiannopoulos avoids direct calls for violence, he often flaunts a Donald Trump-like disregard for the consequences of his speech.

(Update: Yiannopoulous said in a later email that Re/code was accusing him of a crime, which we assert we did not. We did remove “mostly” from above, as it was a personal opinion.)

Responding to a request for comment, a spokesperson from Twitter said, “We don’t comment on individual accounts, for privacy and security reasons,” but confirmed that the email Yiannopoulos tweeted was authentic. The spokesperson declined to comment on other tweets by Yiannopoulos, what specifically prompted taking away the verification or whether taking away a verified badge instead of opting to suspend an account constituted a double standard in its anti-abuse enforcement.

Yiannopoulos told Re/code in an email that he was first verified in early 2015, and that Twitter hasn’t told him why they yanked his blue check. He provided a lengthier statement that you can read in full below, but here’s the key part: “If Twitter has decided to make partisan political editorial decisions, that’s their prerogative. But they must be honest with the public about it. Otherwise they risk damaging their key users’ reputations with ‘unverifications’ and suspensions that give the false impression of harassment, abuse or some other kind of bad behaviour, of which of course I am not guilty.”

On Twitter, a number of Yiannopoulos’s supporters reacted by tweeting out the hashtag #JeSuisMilo, and changing their avatars and usernames to match his own, in solidarity.

Re/code also reached out to Marc Andreessen and Jason Calacanis, prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists who were bantering with and about Yiannopoulos about losing his verification shortly after it happened, which some thought showed support for him. Andreessen declined to comment for this story, but Calacanis clarified his position, writing via text message that, “I don’t condone anyone’s actions unless you see me say, ‘I condone this person’s actions.’ That’s a silly jump to make.”

Noting that “Twitter is going to implode, how does one police this madness?” Calcanis observed that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump “has said 100 things more offensive, [but] have they banned him yet?”

He added: “My only point in all of this, is that Twitter policing speech is going to be a disaster (unless they move to real names like Facebook). It’s an anonymous forum, and no anonymous forum has every been able to police speech successfully. It’s simply not possible to make Twitter a ‘safe space,’ at least as currently designed.”

Calacanis plans to turn all sides off. “The social justice carriers want me to be their enemy, and the right wants me to be their ally — I think they’re both nuts,” he said. “I’m muting all these people, they’re insane.”

That might be hard, since it’s not clear that Twitter’s content guidelines and anti-abuse enforcement mechanisms are adequate, even if you can mute or block users. Casey Newton, Silicon Valley editor of Re/code’s sister site, The Verge, pointed out that when Twitter “updated” its user rules a couple weeks ago, they didn’t really add much, and instead just “rearranged paragraphs.”

Others have long asked why the company hasn’t suspended more harassing or abusive users (like they did with notorious troll blogger Chuck C. Johnson), or why it hasn’t added a number of specific anti-abuse tools.

Though 2016 began less than a week and a half ago, online harassment and abuse has been a consistent headline since the year started. On Thursday, media investment firm The Chernin Group bought a majority stake in Barstool Sports, a sports media and comedy site, which has been recently criticized for a misogynistic tone among its commenters. That same day at CES 2016 in Las Vegas, Re/code, Vox Media*, Intel and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation announced a new initiative called Hack Harassment, meant to rally the tech and media industries around combatting online abuse. In fall of 2014, Gamergate supporters successfully pressured Intel to pull its ads from the gaming website Gamasutra over an article it had published by a writer criticizing the consumerist culture among video gamers.

It’s important to note that Twitter is hardly alone in struggling to craft policies and tools to properly fight online abuse, as other platforms like Reddit and YouTube are very much in the same boat. On this website, Re/code Executive Editor Kara Swisher recently wrote that online harassment is “all too common and much too tolerated.”

“Will I be called a controlling bitch on Twitter? Will someone write me an email saying I deserve to be hit for running my idiotic mouth?” Swisher asked. “Can I ever hope to silence this vile language that is hard to avoid via still inadequate tools offered by social networks?”

She added: “To begin, we are not here to put the kibosh on fair and civil discussion on the Internet, even when it gets heated. We’re not here to tell you that you can’t have private discussions, however ugly, among you and your trollish friends. And we are also not telling you that you cannot have your own opinion.”

As you can see, this is shaping up to be a complex year online — with no clear answers.

For those interested, you can read Yiannopoulos’s full statement below (Update: His tweet calling Re/code “garbage” is also below, because we want to make sure we characterize his response fully. It goes without saying that we assert we are not garbage, though some have accused us of being trashy and that has some truthiness to it.):

Twitter refuses to tell me or anyone else why they took my verified badge away. They told Buzzfeed it was not down to the little stunt I did over Christmas, when I called myself “Social Justice Editor at Buzzfeed,” but instead for something I said. But they won’t tell me what it was. Twitter suspends users all the time but when they do it to someone well-known, it is always a political conservative.

The 140,000 people who follow me — and, frankly, the rest of Twitter’s users too — deserve an explanation. If Twitter has decided to make partisan political editorial decisions, that’s their prerogative. But they must be honest with the public about it. Otherwise they risk damaging their key users’ reputations with “unverifications” and suspensions that give the false impression of harassment, abuse or some other kind of bad behaviour, of which of course I am not guilty.

It’s my view that this is the opening salvo in a wave of demotions, suspensions and bans aimed at conservative commentators. This time they’ve attempted — and failed — to humiliate a gay reporter for having “the wrong opinions,” using a mechanism for identity verification as an ideological weapon. What ended up happening was 5,000 new followers in 24 hours and I trended globally.

* Vox Media owns this website.

This article originally appeared on

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