Last night, Twitter "permanently" banned Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right darling knowing for stirring up shit on Twitter, after repeated violations of Twitter's rules and a day in which he provoked harassment of the black actress Leslie Jones. Jones, who starred in the new Ghostbusters film, spent Monday getting endlessly and ruthlessly harassed on Twitter by people ranging from those still outraged that the new Ghostbusters film features women in the lead roles, to the garden-variety virulent racists who call Twitter home.
Harassment on Twitter is far from a new problem, and Jones spent the day very publicly getting inundated by the mob without any meaningful support from Twitter. Now, following a deluge of bad press, Twitter has banned a troll who will only use it to fuel his own cult of personality, and whose banning is likely to inspire further chaos on the platform. Mission Accomplished.
In a statement on the matter, Twitter said "We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree," adding that the company is "continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems," but did not have anything concrete to offer, saying instead that it will "provide more details on those changes in the coming weeks."
Banning a single person is not a meaningful step towards fixing a base problem with Twitter's platform
Twitter is justified in banning Yiannopoulos for a litany of transgressions of its rules barring the incitement of harassment on the site; it's a private platform and can do how it sees fit. How that ban sticks, and how permanent it is, and whether potential Yiannopouloses will be banned on sight, and all the other issues of permanently keeping someone off of a fairly anonymous platform are interesting concerns, but ultimately inconsequential.
While banning Yiannopoulos following a day of hatred spewed unceasingly at a black actress is a Grand Gesture, it belies, yet again, a complete and fundamental lack of understanding by Twitter of the harassment problem on its site. It's a problem that's transcended the mere hate corral of harassment, and spread itself into the very experience of using Twitter at all.
Banning a single person, however justified it may be—and while Yiannopoulos surely earned it, he earned it knowing that an eventual ban would only boost his own brand (#freemilo is currently trending on Twitter), which is the ultimate Twitter masterstroke if you really want to go there—it's ultimately not going to change much, just as banning the tireless troll Charles C. Johnson did little to empower users to protect themselves from similar abuse.
Monday, Leslie Jones was mobbed by hundreds of accounts. It was not a person suffering in silence; Twitter was flooded with commentary and support and further antagonization. There's no way Twitter staff could have missed the issue. And yet nothing happened, not with any sort of timely fashion. Not quickly enough to prevent Jones from ending the day with a tweet as gutting as this.
And if that's how a famous movie star gets treated by Twitter, how about all the other people dealing with random abuse every day? Banning a single person, even if that person were to orchestrate some sort of mob, is not a meaningful step towards fixing a base problem with Twitter's platform. It's not like Twitter has no resolve to solve large ideological concerns on the platform; Twitter's mass banning of ISIS accounts shows it does. In the case of harassment, mass banning is too blunt an option for Twitter's liking, but simple improvements do exist; "How to fix Twitter's harassment problem" is a years-old blogging genre all its own. And yet change—even making it clear what constitutes violations worthy of a permaban!—has not been forthcoming.
Meaningful change on Twitter's part does not have to be drastic. Aside from clarifying its opaque rules around harassment and abuse, and improving the responsiveness of its reporting system, Twitter could make a relatively minor change like allowing users to mute all replies to a single tweet, or making old tweets easier to hide or delete to deflate the opposition research for that mobs now undertake, and make a gesture that has a noticeable impact for all users. This is not a new lament, and yet the company so far has spent more time playing a cynical game of highly-reported-on Whac-A-Mole.
Banning Yiannopoulos is certainly not a maneuver without downside for Twitter. It's only enflamed outrage from the right wing centered around a perception of Twitter—and social networks and Silicon Valley at large—as a largely lefty institution whose head is so far up its power-hungry social justice ass that it will do anything to shut down prominent right wing voices. (This is how you get right wing commentators calling credulously for the socialization of a private company.)
And yet there's a nugget of truth deep, deep, deep inside that outrage. Think of this: All the blowback Twitter will receive is purely in service of it sending a message about what it stands for, without actually doing the things users have called for for years to actually make a difference. The ban of Yiannopoulos has certainly gained a ton of attention, but the day-to-day experience for the end user on Twitter will be just the same. But in the end I suppose that a highly-amplified hollow sentiment is precisely what Twitter is designed for.