Twitter removed the blue check mark that signals a user's authenticity from the account of Milo Yiannopoulos, a writer for Breitbart whose tweets about women’s issues have made him a symbol of the battle over noxious speech online. But if Twitter's intent was to make him less visible, its plan may have backfired.
Yiannopoulos is probably one of Twitter’s least favorite users. He has become a mouthpiece for the so-called Gamergate movement, whose attacks on women have played a key role in turning online harassment into a major issue for Silicon Valley companies. Yiannopoulos expresses views that are often viewed as sexist, and is a regular picker of Twitter fights. His tweets aren’t singularly objectionable, say his critics, but because of his prominence they serve to identify targets for dozens of other Twitter users to take aim at for abuse. In Twitter terms, this phenomenon is known as dogpiling. Soraya Chemaly, a feminist activist who has pushed Twitter to deal with harassment on its platform, describes this as a form of incitement that didn’t exist before social media. “The systems aren’t built for that kind of amplification,” she said.
Twitter has declined to talk about Yiannopoulos, so it’s not clear exactly what he said to inspire the crackdown. It’s also a mystery why the company chose to remove his verified status rather than freeze or delete his account altogether. The verified status, indicated by a blue check mark, is used to signal to Twitter users that accounts purporting to be those of prominent people are legitimate. The company says it can revoke status for people who violate its terms of service.
The effectiveness of using de-verification as punishment is debatable. Twitter’s platform favors its verified uses in different ways. Yiannopoulos says not having verified status will reduce his reach by making him less likely to show up in search and keeping him from corresponding with some prominent people, who can set their accounts to only see messages from other verified users. He is threatening to leave Twitter altogether because of the move.
“Although it looks petty and meaningless and it’s designed to belittle, discredit and marginalize, it has significant business implications — for where I, as a brand, spend ad dollars,” he said in an e-mail.
At the same time, Yiannopoulos is reveling in the attention. His audience is largely comprised of people seeking evidence of liberal bias in American institutions. Yiannopoulos has taken to the platform itself to bemoan such purported bias while pointing out how much attention it has brought him and mocking the company’s stock performance.
For now this looks like a lose-lose for Twitter. It's brought on all the negative attention of censorship while also increasing the prominence of someone it thinks is behaving inappropriately. Chemaly says the company is putting itself into a difficult situation, especially because it hasn’t explained what Yiannopoulos did wrong. As a guide for other people who are near the threshold the company is trying to set, the move against Yiannopoulos is useless. “It doesn’t really send a clear message to anyone about what the standards are. It’s not a reproducible or predictable decision,” she said.
The flap illustrates how hard it is for a private company to serve as the de facto arbiter of worldwide free speech. Brianna Wu, a game developer who has been one of the more prominent targets of Gamergate, praised the company for sending what she described as a warning to Yiannopoulos.
“I have empathy for Twitter, because as a large media platform they don’t want the appearance that they are censoring anyone,” she said. “I think it’s in Twitter’s best interests not to make all these changes overnight.”
Wu argues that Twitter deserves more credit than it generally gets for combating harassment, although she describes the company’s efforts as inconsistent. For the last year, her company -- Giant Spacekat -- has complained to Twitter numerous times about harassment, and has been tracking the company’s responses. Under former Chief Executive Officer Dick Costolo, Wu saw a steady improvement in response rates. These fell off significantly when Jack Dorsey returned to the helm last year. Wu says this is probably due to the layoffs that took place around the same time. She says the company has begun to improve its response times again, although it's still slower than it was when Costolo left.
Twitter and Yiannopoulos are now in a standoff of sorts. After warning him, Twitter has to be more sensitive to any further provocations. “Twitter is probably waiting now for me to really lose it and say something awful (by their imaginary standards) so they can ban me,” Yiannopoulos said. “But they must know it will have to be a HORRIFIC statement — of the sort I simply don’t make.”
Yiannopoulos seems poised to walk right up whatever line Twitter is setting, even though he doesn't know exactly where it is. In doing so, he's essentially daring the company to move further. Now that it has started a fight with one of its most combative users, Twitter has raised the stakes for coming up with an endgame.
(Corrects characterization of Yiannopoulos' tweets in second paragraph.)