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Milo Yiannopoulos's Twitter ban, explained

How Ghostbusters shifted the goalposts on online harassment.

Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, who spearheaded a campaign of harassment against her over the weekend.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

As a fun, mild action movie, the new Ghostbusters is a highly unlikely candidate to become a cultural game changer.

But as one of the first action movies ever to sport an all-female headlining cast, the franchise reboot has become one of the most controversial films of the year. Now the movie has inadvertently contributed to Twitter taking a major step in its efforts to combat harassment: the banning of alt-right hero Milo Yiannopoulos from the platform.

Tuesday night, Twitter permanently suspended Yiannopoulos from the website. The social media platform had previously suspended him twice in June, but reinstated him each time after rounds of protests from Yiannopoulos’s many fans.

The permanent banning comes after the highly public role Yiannopoulos played in the intense round of Twitter harassment — the vast majority of it overwhelmingly and explicitly racist — that Ghostbusters star and Saturday Night Live comedian Leslie Jones received on Monday following the US release of the film.

Jones, who plays the character of Patty Tolan in the film, spent most of the day retweeting some of the abuse she had been receiving before declaring she’d had enough:

She also minced no words for Twitter’s notoriously lax harassment prevention system:

The harassment against Jones follows more than a year of sustained backlash against the new Ghostbusters remake. Though many franchise fans have claimed to be upset for varying reasons, the most evident cause — one brutally manifested in the abuse against Jones — is sexist dislike of the all-female cast.

That factor doesn’t fully explain Yiannopoulos’s role in the harassment of Jones, but it’s a crucial component of the culture Yiannopoulos is spearheading.

Diverse franchise reboots and the spread of a geek subculture war

Geek culture has witnessed Ghostbusters-style backlashes against diverse reimaginings of beloved franchises more and more frequently in recent years.

In 2014, Gamergate — the anti-feminist harassment movement that surfaced in gaming culture and spread into larger internet culture — also fought against many gaming franchises that sought to be more diverse.

Since then, the movement has effectively become a cornerstone of the alt-right, and still continues to influence everything from the presidential election to major tech conferences. It overlaps with large swaths of 4chan, men's rights activism, the online atheist movement, pickup artist culture, Reddit, and Tumblr.

Gamergate’s tactics included "brigading" — the act of a group targeting specific subjects and strategizing ways to collectively harass or threaten them — and sustained negative focus on any media product deemed to be pandering to feminism or progressive calls for diverse representation.

These practices and emphasis on anti-diverse stances have merged into not only the internet’s larger alt-right culture but into other areas of geek culture as well, such as the Sad/Rabid Puppies campaign, which rigged the nominations for the science fiction/fantasy community’s fan-voted Hugo Awards.

Other films have been targeted, too. Last year opened with a similar, though smaller, anti-feminist backlash against Mad Max: Fury Road from longtime fans and men's rights activists, then closed with waves of protest against the diverse cast and woman-focused storyline of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The anti-Ghostbusters backlash springs from the same gatekeeping, anti-diversity impulse.

Though members of those casts received their share of sniping on and off Twitter, the targeted brigading in those cases was primarily directed at boycotts of the films themselves, rather than at individual actors.

Yes, other members of the Ghostbusters cast, notably Melissa McCarthy, the only other member of the film’s central foursome active on Twitter, have also endured misogynistic harassment. But the racist bent of the harassment aimed at Jones has been remarkably targeted and vicious.

Though multiple attempts have been made to paint the Ghostbusters backlash as a product of what is perceived (largely inaccurately) as a more general trend of fan entitlement, the nature of Jones’s harassment is very clearly and overwhelmingly a product of extreme racism that has nothing to do with the Ghostbusters franchise — or with fandom in general.

As the only black woman prominently featured among these recent examples of diverse casting in franchise films, Jones is easily the most vulnerable target for this kind of attack.

Twitter is a notoriously unsafe space for women, but it’s even more toxic for women of color. Abusive attacks on women of color tend to involve more violent language, occur more frequently, and be far more overtly racist and dehumanizing, by orders of magnitude.

So race is explicitly the primary factor in what happened to Jones over the weekend. But there’s another factor in the rampant brigades sending wave after wave of attacks against Jones.

And that’s Milo Yiannopoulos.

Yiannopoulos has been a champion of the alt-right

In 2014, Yiannopoulos, a British media pundit for the right-wing news website Breitbart, became the beloved conservative idol of Gamergate by writing sympathetic articles covering the movement. Ever since, Yiannopoulos — or "Nero," as he is nicknamed on Twitter — has essentially played commander to a veritable army of mostly male extremists hailing from Reddit, 4chan, and Twitter.

When he’s discussed in the media, Yiannopoulos is most frequently described as a "troll." But for a man with 300,000 followers eager to imitate his example, troll hardly seems the right descriptor, or an adequate to describe the immense influence he has over his fans. Past attempts by Twitter to suspend him for his offensive speech have only galvanized his followers, who used hashtags like #FreeMilo to successfully call for Twitter to reinstate his account.

Yiannopoulos, like many of his followers, has been staunchly opposed to the Ghostbusters remake for over a year. The subreddit r/KotakuinAction, which grew out of Gamergate and remains a geek culture alt-right haven, has been obsessed with tracking and negatively posting about Ghostbusters for months.

But while these campaigns have at least ostensibly been ideological, Yiannopoulos’s tweets on the subject have been pointedly misogynistic. And, in Jones’s case, they’ve been transphobic and racist for a while now:

There’s more where that came from.

How Milo galvanized an entire onslaught of racist brigading against Leslie Jones

The harassment against Jones didn’t start with Yiannopoulos. It gradually escalated over Sunday and Monday, as more people began to react to Jones’s Twitter celebrations of the film.

But it got a swift push from Yiannopoulos Monday evening. In response to a tweet in which Jones described a litany of extreme examples of the racist harassment she had been receiving, Yiannopoulos accused her of being unable to handle "hate mail" and playing the victim:

This tweet was all he needed to summon hours and hours of harassment against Jones that responded both to him and to her directly — though at that point, neither of them had actually directly interacted.

After hundreds of these kinds of replies, a baffled Jones, who had apparently never heard of Yiannopoulos, wondered who he was, then retweeted an explanation calling him "the Uncle Tom of gay [people]" — which incensed Yiannopoulos’s followers.

Jones then called him out and blocked him.

As a part of the general harassment campaign, Yiannopoulos’s followers created a series of fake tweets, some of which appear to have been made using browser developer tools, others at the fake Twitter creation site Let Me Tweet That for You; a look at the site shows a number of similar fake tweets made recently and also attributed to Jones.

Yiannopoulos "screencapped" and reacted with fake shock to the tweets, leading many Twitter users to believe that the tweets came from Jones’s real account. The tenor of the fake tweets portrayed Jones as speaking in an exaggerated "street" slang and depicted her as dropping anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs. When Jones tweeted that she had blocked @Nero, she was inundated with racist replies in response — an (extremely offensive) representative sample comes from a self-described Gamergater, "shitposter."

Within the alt-right’s fortified castle on Reddit, users were positively gleeful over Jones’s upset reaction, particularly at r/KotakuinAction and the notoriously offensive r/OpieandAnthony. (Warning: Link may contain racial slurs and hate speech.)

"We finally made one of them fully implode," reads one typical response at the Trump forum r/The_Donald. It’s unclear who "We" and "them" are, but it’s a safe bet that "we" encompasses the general alt-right movement and "them" is a mix of anything including feminists, progressive internet communities (so-called "social justice warriors" in alt-right speak), and the four new Ghostbusters themselves.

The tone on Twitter was likewise oddly triumphant:

Twitter is especially prone to these kinds of meltdowns

It’s notable that Twitter seems more vulnerable to brigading from the internet’s alt-right corners — Reddit, 4chan and 8chan, various men’s rights forums, and other niche right-wing, libertarian-leaning, heavily male-dominated communities — than other social media platforms.

This is most likely due to its public and easily accessible nature. The ease with which anyone can make an account and begin directly tweeting at verified users may be a selling point for Twitter, but it also makes it extremely easy to populate "sock puppets" (that is, to create unconnected internet accounts all posing as different people) and proliferate harassment across the site.

And while other sites make it relatively easy to report and take action against harassment — just look at how quickly Instagram reportedly jumped to protect Taylor Swift from snake emoji following the massive blowup between her and the Kardashian clan over the weekend — Twitter is notoriously slow to act in any way.

To date, though Twitter has banned a handful of extremely abusive internet trolls like Chuck C. Johnson, others, like notorious pick-up artist Roosh V (who once bragged about date-raping a woman), are still effectively active on Twitter despite long patterns of harassment and many attempts by victims of their trolling, most of whom are women, to get them banned.

When Twitter does act to remove harassment and abuse, the action almost always comes only after sustained public outcry. In essence, increasingly it seems as though the only way to get Twitter to take action against abuse is to be famous.

More than a day after Jones had begun retweeting her harassment and over five hours after the war between Nero’s followers and Jones had begun, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey stepped in:

Dorsey’s tweet would seem to indicate that Twitter wanted to take action against the harassment. And many of Jones’s supporters wanted to make it clear what the first step should be:

The hashtag #BanNero began circulating.

Ultimately, Twitter took a major step and decided to #BanNero

Yiannopoulos’s presence on Twitter, and his response to Jones, seemed to shift the Ghostbusters backlash into something incredibly visceral and vicious. In the internet war of words, Yiannopoulos essentially took aim at Jones and fired thousands of eager, angry Twitter users in her direction. That’s not the kind of direct "trolling" that easily gains a Twitter ban, but rather a more tacit, indirect form of harassment stemming from his direct influence over his community of followers.

Historically, however, Twitter hasn’t viewed this kind of indirect targeting by a major "troll" like Yiannopoulos or Roosh V as an example of actual, substantiated harassment. And as late as Tuesday, it looked as though Twitter would take no direct action against Yiannopoulos, though in a statement issued Monday night to BuzzFeed, the platform insisted that it had taken some action to ban other users who'd participated in the harassment of Jones.

Instead, Twitter announced that it will be opening up its verification process — the procedure that allows verified users to obtain a blue check by their names — to the general public instead of to select public figures. Yiannopoulos clearly viewed this as a sort of victory.

Yiannopoulos then moved on to focusing on the Republican National Convention, where he threw a "Gays for Trump" party Tuesday night — one attended by both Roosh V and Chuck C. Johnson — and posed like a rock star with eager fans.

But Twitter seemed finally ready to commit to making a move on Yiannopoulos. Tuesday night, the site suspended him once more — only this time, it issued a statement to Yiannopoulos, which he shared with BuzzFeed, that the ban would be permanent:

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.

In a response issued through Breitbart, Yiannopoulos called the banning "cowardly" and declared that "Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives. ... Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter." Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, he deflected responsibility for sending harassment Jones’s direction.

In a conversation with Vox reporter Zack Beauchamp Tuesday night, Yiannopoulos added that he welcomed Twitter’s decision:

Is anything more wonderful than getting banned? Are you insane? My life is more fun now, and it’s about to get a lot more fun. ...

I’ve been preparing for this for six months. I could not have asked for a better time.

It’s unlikely that banning Yiannopoulos on Twitter will do much to quash his direct influence over his followers — just as it apparently failed to quash his Tuesday night party:

Predictably, currently on Twitter the #FreeMilo hashtag is once again being deployed, as his followers rally around his cause.

But at the very least, Twitter’s decision to permanently ban Yiannopoulos from the site is historic and most likely will serve as a stepping stone for Twitter to refine and increase its tools for fighting abuse. In particular, this should increase Twitter’s ability to identify the kind of largely indirect harassment that Yiannopoulos specialized in: not individual acts of trolling, but rather homing in on a target and goading other Twitter followers to go on the attack.

Hopefully, the move will also put some much-needed distance between two sides of an ongoing and escalating culture war — and might even make it harder for these battles to be waged through harassment.

Vox reporter Zack Beauchamp contributed to this report.