Monday 26 September 2016

Free speech? Twitter is right to silence the hateful trolls

Published 23/07/2016 | 02:30

Actress Leslie Jones, who closed her Twitter account after she endured a sustained campaign of hate. Photo by JB Lacroix/WireImage
Actress Leslie Jones, who closed her Twitter account after she endured a sustained campaign of hate. Photo by JB Lacroix/WireImage

Liberal free-speech purists have gotten themselves in quite a tizzy since Twitter banned right-wing hero Milo Yiannopoulos for his role in orchestrating the harassment of 'Ghostbusters' actress Leslie Jones.

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A notorious troll, Yiannopoulos is a self-described David fighting a one-man battle against the Goliath of feminist political correctness. Having amassed a legion of 340,000 followers on Twitter, he was banned from the social media site this week when his usual offensive ramblings crossed a line to incitement to hatred.

Outraged that the 'Ghostbusters' franchise had sullied itself with a reincarnation featuring four female leads, Yiannopoulos reserved most of his vitriol for black actress Leslie Jones, who he likened to a man.

His revulsion was widely shared by an army of disgruntled fans who flooded Jones's Twitter account with racist and sexist messages after the movie's release. When Jones had the temerity to complain about the abuse she was receiving on Twitter, a sneering Yiannopoulos accused her of playing the victim.

His tweet was a red rag to his bullish followers, who embarked on a concerted campaign of harassment against the actress. Some went so far as to concoct a series of fake tweets, designed to look like they came from Jones's account, which contained vile anti-Semitic and homophobic messages. Yiannopoulos gleefully retweeted these forgeries to his fans, giving them the veneer of authenticity, prompting a fresh wave of venom to descend on the actress.

Eventually, unable to stomach the attempt to smear her as a bigot, Jones quit Twitter, complaining in the process to CEO Jack Dorsey that the company had not done enough to protect her.

In response, as well as shutting down the accounts of those who posted the worst of the abuse, Twitter opted to permanently suspend Yiannopoulos for his role in cheerleading the cretins.

This wasn't the writer's first offence. He had previously been sanctioned a number of times for similarly odious remarks, including telling another woman being brigaded - subjected to a prolonged and concerted campaign of online abuse - that she "deserved to be harassed".

Instead of applauding Twitter's attempt to demonstrate that abusive content comes with a cost, a host of liberal handwringers have accused the social media site of a jack-booted assault on free speech.

They deplore Yiannopoulos's bigotry, they insist, yet champion his right to post whatever disgusting messages he wants on Twitter - as if the right to free speech necessarily entails the right to have one's views hosted and broadcast to hundreds and thousands of people, by a private company suffering reputational damage by the association.

This argument is a bit like saying that if I invite someone into my house and they abuse another guest, I am powerless to stop it. I have to sit there, silently fuming, and allow them to spew their invective because kicking them out would be an attack on their civil liberties.

Of course, this is nonsense. The abusive guest can be ejected and, once outside, is free to continue their tirade to anyone willing to listen. I just don't have to facilitate him.

Similarly, Yiannopoulos, when he signed up to Twitter, agreed to abide by the company's terms and conditions, which include warnings that attacking and misrepresenting other users will not be tolerated.

Having breached his side of the bargain, he has now been booted out, but nobody is preventing him from continuing to disseminate his hate speech on right-wing website breitbart.com, where he is a columnist, or on his new reality TV show, which is reportedly in the works.

Laughably, having accused Jones of playing the victim card, Yiannopoulos is now presenting himself as some kind of noble martyr whose banning signals the death-knell of Twitter as a place where free speech is valued.

In reality, what it really signals is that Yiannopoulos is an outrage merchant, trading in vituperative commentary, who crossed the line from offensiveness to harassment and is now, deservedly, paying the price.

After building a media career raging about a culture war, in which feminist zealotry peddled by bleeding-heart left-wingers is poisoning public discourse, it suits Yiannopoulos's agenda to present himself as a fallen warrior in this epic struggle. Some of his more gullible knuckle-dragging acolytes may even swallow this line and worship him even more for his sacrifice in furtherance of the cause.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can laugh at his persecution complex and take comfort in the knowledge that Twitter is determined to protect its users from orchestrated campaigns of hate and harassment, even if abusers are high-profile figures who drive lots of traffic to the website.

For too long on Twitter, those who engage in threatening and xenophobic commentary have been allowed to wallow in their fetid corners of the website, often forcing their victims to close their accounts when they come under a sustained assault.

Abusive commentary will always be a minority feature of any micro-blogging site like Twitter and tools like blocking and muting do help. However, that doesn't mean trolls shouldn't also face the ultimate sanction - the loss of their soapbox and microphone.

Irish Independent

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