How the portrayal of Yiannopolous in the media following his expulsion from the social media platform reveal a greater debate about the Twittersphere.
By Lachlan Cheney
Milo Yiannopolous is a self-proclaimed “conservative libertarian”, with headline setting opinions on a variety of political and social issues. The well-spoken homosexual is renowned amongst political media and social media for his online trolling – often referring to himself as a professional “provocateur”. He has become a leader in an online community of contemporary conservatives, often attempting to clarify the ambiguity of its political definitions, whilst being a beacon for free speech protestors in online communities facing alleged suppression and censorship. His controversial Twitter banning in 2016 has invigorated concerns over Twitter’s decisions to interject, and stimulated further debate on what exactly free speech is and whether it can exist online.
Nair highlighted that, often labelled as “hate speech” by the progressive left, the alt-right online communities will often claim free speech in defence of comments that allegedly cross an arbitrary line of humour. “The controversy over the line between hate speech and free speech has always been a fight between conservatives who cite the First Amendment as their only credible rationale and liberals who aren’t even sure how to define hate speech.” (Nair 2016). Yiannopoulos was expelled from the social media site following multiple alleged infringements, ‘charged’ with inciting targeted abuse – or ‘hate speech’ – online (Twitters media release following the ban).
ollowing a scathing review of the 2015 Ghostbusters reboot, and complaints from star Leslie Jones on Twitter, Milo complained that she wasn’t able to acce
pt criticism when she tweeted “All this cause I did a movie. You can hate the movie but the s*** I got today…wrong.” Milo responded saying “If at first you don’t succeed (because your work is terrible), play the victim. Everyone gets hate mail FFS” tempting Jones to block Milo on Twitter. Milo then tweeted the below, the barb seemingly playing on Yiannopolous being publicly open about his promiscuities with only black men.
Without any encouragement from him, Yiannopolous’ fans directed heavily abusive tweets and threats towards the actress. No stranger to Twitter controversy, Yiannopolous had his blue verification tick removed earlier this year by Twitter for repeated infringements.
The articles analysed below reveal a propensity of the media to represent Yiannopoulos in a certain way, but of keen interest, is how these characterisations of him and the debate over his banishment vectors towards a new centre for concern. The authors focus on a greater issue for the political movement that he represents. Yiannopolous has become symbol for the conservative right movement and its beliefs, such as free speech and ‘a general tiredness of being suppressed by the progressive left’, or as Yiannopolous asserts, the regressive left. The commentators and reporters are united in their condemnation of Yiannopoulos’ Tweets to Jones, yet all are brought to question the ban as a legitimate punishment. Robertson highlights the preceding arguments that arise from the arbitrary use of power that Twitter wields: “The general opacity of Twitter’s anti-harassment system helps no one. It lets genuinely terrible people argue they’re victims, creates uncertainty for anyone whose unpopular opinions don’t cross over into harassment, and gives everyday users no way to figure out what they can expect from the platform. If someone thinks they’re being harassed, they can’t hold Twitter to a strong, clear, consistent standard for addressing it….” (Robertson 2016).
Sentiments about Yiannopolous expressed in the articles arguably reflect those held by the greater population. All four articles badge Yiannopolous as deserving of the ban and to paint him as an “alt-right” leader, seemingly with the intention, but in any event with the likely effect, of segregating readers as either supporters or detractors of Yiannopolous. Although the articles renounce Yiannopoulos and his beliefs, more concern is directed to the actions taken by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The saga has highlighted a diverse range of values that shape the discourses of online democracy in spaces such as Twitter. The social media platform has previously portrayed itself as the bastion of free speech, stating it is “free speech wing of the free speech party,” however, with this territory came the consequences: it is now considered “home to the profound and profane.” (Toree & Albergotti 2014). Undoubtedly, the media contributes to the debate about the values of free speech, the role of the internet in the democratic discourse, and shapes the perceptions of influencers, such as Yiannopolous, of this debate.
- News report on the Twitter battle of Jones and Yiannopoulos
Article 1: Just how offensive did Milo Yiannopolous have to be to get banned from twitter?
Written by Abby Ohlheiser for the Washington Post, the article divides opinions as to its purpose and its claims. The title can be interpreted in two ways, ‘why hasn’t this occurred sooner?’ OR ‘who is Twitter to decide the level of offence?’.
The article’s opening alludes to to an understanding of a dichotomy of readers, either Yiannopolous supporters or detractors, with implicit evaluations: “…Twitter permanently banned the conservative writer Milo Yiannopolous as it cracked down on a wave of racist abuse targeting the ‘Ghostbusters’ actor Leslie Jones.” An inference that might be drawn from this is that Yiannopolous had an active role in inciting the abuse directed by others towards Jones. However, there is a third category addressed by Ohlheiser; those hearing about Yiannopolous for the first time or without a vested interest in the topic.
The issue Ohlheiser is seeking to address is explicitly stated: “…[the punishment is] the social network’s strongest response against those who break its abuse and harassment policies, but we know very little about how Twitter decides to use it.” Ohlheiser is therefore addressing the Twitter universe, revealing that her article is not only addressing the Yiannopolous ban, but the wider consequences of the banning action.
We see an explicit characterization of Yiannopolous that can only lead readers to view him in a certain light. She classifies Yiannopoulos by his political beliefs, as a leader of the “alt-right”, “a grouping of anti-politically-correct-die-hards, trolls and racist meme lords who have united around their common liberal targets.” Ohlheiser clearly approaches Yiannopoulos’ representation as a given, appealing to popular opinion, that the contemporary alt-right population consists only of those who fit these classificatory evaluations, whilst providing no justificatory support for this kind of generalised representation.
However, this clearly is not the motivations of the author, rather a mere distraction to her true argument, as she previously stated, the ambiguity that surrounds Twitter bans: “Users who are perma-banned from Twitter are, as practice, not told which tweets of theirs prompted the ban – only that they are banned, their accounts will not be restored, and which parts of Twitter’s rules the company says were violated.” Ohlheiser constructs an argument that allows readers to come to their own conclusions about the minor warrants of five high profile banishments. The purpose is to allow the audience to evaluate the true problem, the suspected hypocrisy of Twitter, and to question whether it has addressed the issue of abuse online effectively.
For example, Charles C Johnson, a journalist and at one time, “Twitter’s most notorious troll”, banned because of a tweet directed at a Black Lives Matter activist, DeRay Mckesson, pictured here:
Ohlheiser sets out a balanced argumentative process, exploring either side of the argument:
- “ ‘Twitter doesn’t seem to have a problem with people using their account to coordinate riots….but they do have a problem with kind of journalism I do.’” (Quoting Johnson).
- “Johnson had a clear history of violating twitter’s rules against abuse and harassment, even back when the list of banned behaviours was much shorter than it is today.”
- “…some writers and anti-censorship advocates noted at the time that the particular way the suspension played out raised some questions about how Twitter enforces its policies.”
The outlining of opposing opinions is a journalistic device that frees a neutral audience to form its own evaluations about the latter claim.
Ohlheiser’s comparison of banned accounts is presented without any attempt to characterise the personalities involved of the type seen in Yiannopolous’ case, suggesting that the author sought to impress certain views about the man in question. This further suggests a world view that Ohlheiser takes for granted, that is, an audience the takes the stereotyping of alt-right believers as a social more.
The rhetoric employed alludes to the audience deductively reasoning the minor claims of the five cases, to help to clarify views on Twitter’s actions as right or wrong. For example, the views promoted by Ohlheiser’s neutral stance suggest that one can view the steps as unnecessary censorship or argue Twitter had a moral obligation.
Article 2: Milo Yiannopolous: Twitter Banning one man won’t undo his poisonous legacy
On any reasonable reading of this article, its author, Leigh Alexander, clearly has an agenda, pursued as perhaps a personal vendetta, against Yiannopolous, betrayed by the negatively laden utterances throughout.
- “…poisonous legacy”
- “Ding dong, the witch is dead”
- “…a chorus of virtual cheers has gone up…”
- “[Yiannopoulos] has been a peddler of inarguable hate speech.”
Absent any empircal evidence to justiy these claims, the purpose such content serves is to address an audience of agreers. These explicit evaluations are furthered by explicit statements such as “us folks on the left” and the claim that “Yiannpolous helped lead a charge aimed at humilaiting me into silence and hounding me out of my job”. Alexander is referring to an earlier personal battle with Yiannopoulos. Whilst this suggests that Alexander’s purpose is vengeance, it reveals Alexander clearly targetting a known, sympathetic audience, comprised of those who deplore the actions of Yiannpolous. So, instead of focusing on the “satisfaction of his banning”, Alexander addresses those celebrating the removal of his Twitter page, stating that it is not “constructive” to do so.
The author expresses personal opinions that suggest Yiannopoulos’ views and beliefs are outside the norm and the values held by a majority of the community, such opinions evident in the tone of the article and its deployment of implict, negatively evaluative terms such as: “Only those users who live at the bizarre intersection of anime fandom, Donald Trump, and intentionally ‘edgy’ neoconservative meme dumps are sad to see Yiannopoulos go.” Alexander seeks to address the aforementioned dilemma: “Milo is now a martyr for ‘free speech’”. A constructive argument is built by addressing opposing beliefs, suggesting a recognition by the author that there are opposing views:
“But I know my spite is not constructive: this celbration is at best premature and at worst short-sighted. Banning one man won’t undo the small but poisonos cultural legacy he’s reated, nor erase the playbook for defamation and harrassment online that he’s played a key role in scripting. Twitter has far, far more work to do.”
“But I know my spite is not constructive: this celbration is at best premature and at worst short-sighted. Banning one man won’t undo the small but poisonos cultural legacy he’s reated, nor erase the playbook for defamation and harrassment online that he’s played a key role in scripting. “Twitter has far, far more work to do.”
The statement is emphasised to highlight Alexander is approaching the greater issue. This interpretive argument proposes a different way to view the issue yet to be posited by other journalists and commentators. Alexander recommends the approach Twitter needs to take: “What people like Yiannopoulos say might make them vile to some, true, but it’s what they do on Twitter, and the way the platform enables their viral behaviour, that needs addressing the most.”
Alexander interpretively argues that Twitter’s act of censoring is not going to address the social issue that Yiannopoulos represents. Twitter’s current structure allows aggressive mob-like mentalities to foster. Opposing views are not oppressed, rather challeneged and Alexander claims that the banning, whilst deserved, is not a constructive approach. Furthermore, Alexander, whilst distracted with strawperson arguments centered on the negative characterisation of Yiannopolous, constructs an argument addressing the progressive left. Alexander propounds that the actions such as those of Yiannopoulos and his fans towards actress Jones “are waged specifically with the intention to manipulate or damage the target’s public image, to push them into abandoning the platform as Jones did, or to frighten them into silence with threats worded just so that they’re creepy but not actionable.” Appealing to the consequences that result from such abusive behaviour, and the emotion that comes with referring to Jones’ situation, Alexander portrays herself as credible in recognising opposing positions, whilst furthering the belief that Twitter’s system of functionality needs addressing.
Of interest here, however, is that, despite belonging to opposing political alliances and subscribing to different world views, both Yiannopoulos and Alexander call for the same action: greater scrutiny on Twitter. Their respective reasons are not identical, but the warrant remains: Twitter isn’t functioning in a way that serves best to foster a healthy online democracy.
Article 3: Milo Yiannopoulos, rightwing writer, permanently banned from Twitter
Elle Hunt takes a journalistic approach, opting to proffer a more factual underpinning of events and allowing readers to make value judgments for themselves, for the most part. Giving voice to both sides of opinion, Hunt addresses the ban of Yiannopoulos. However, like the authors considered earlier, Hunt sees Twitter’s approach to the suppression of views as the greater issue. Hunt, ‘quietly’ suggests to readers a certain depiction of Yiannopolous. The terms used, whilst not as pejorative as those deployed in the articles considered earlier, still leave a lingering sense of unease towards Yiannopolous: “A known contrarian who likened rape culture to Harry Potter (‘both fantasy’) and affectionately refers to Donald Trump as ‘daddy’”. These quotes clearly divide opinion, and the author’s actions in taking them out of context arguably reflect her desire to engender in the reader feelings of unease about Yiannopolous.
Hunt quotes Yiannopolous himself portray Twitter’s hypocrisy, as he sees it, and the greater issues that his expulsion has raised: “ ‘Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.”
Depicting the events chronologically reveals that Hunt expects a diverse viewership therefore takes no fact for granted. The various view points are evidenced through the revealing of Twitter’s statement on the matter: “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 targeted abuse or harrassment of others.”
Hunt’s news piece reports two varying opinions on what many are questioning about Twitter, however, with the lacking of justifcatory support, the evaluative arguments asserted lack any persuasive force.
Article 4: Milo Yiannopoulos banned from Twitter, which highlights the double standards of the platform
Matthew Dunn’s views journalism piece was published on news.com.au, for the express purpose of addressing the concerns that have previously been raised over Twitter’s arbitrary selection criteria for expulsion. The claim is explicit in the title of the piece, however, Dunn’s work addresses readerships on both sides of the debate. Dunn follows his compatriots in denouncing the statements Yiannopoulos made towards Jones, yet this is not the centrepiece of Dunn’s argument. Rather, taking an interpretive approach, Dunn states that Yiannopoulos is “a person well-known for acting as a free speech provocateur, exploiting the nexus of politics technology and social justice issues.” Dunn seeks to shift audience opinion and explicitly shape attitudes to that of questioning the decision to ban Yiannopoulos specifically: “…Twitter’s permanent suspension of Yiannopoulos is a ridiculous and unjustified decision, which will initiate a major a war over free speech.”
Dunn’s less formal tone directs his comments to an audience who is well informed on the issue, stressing his own credibility by mapping out the sequence of events whilst avoiding value laden terms. The expression of Yiannopoulos’ views are provided evidence to support the claims, highlighting that Twitter is a “safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter Extremists, but believed it didn’t welcome conservatives.”
Yiannopoulos is quoted: “Twitter has suspeneded me without evidence of wrongdoing and without explanation whilst allowing the most appalling abuses to continue on its platform…Twitter doesn’t stand for free speech. What they do stand for is a carefully crafted façade of leftist approved ideas, and conservatives that don’t stray too far from safe (globalist) ideas.”
In comparison to the previously considered article, there is more context given to the quotes, with appeals to comparison and analogy allowing Dunn to develop and present a more constructive argument. The acceptance of Yiannopoulos’ wrongdoing, Dunn argues, using supposed social norms, alluding to the amount of “trolls left to operate on the service” making Yianopoulos’ ban pointless. Opposing arguments are simply dealt with: Dunn recognises they exist, but the central argumentative mechanisms he employs look to address why the ban is causing such a problem for Twitter: “But, why is someone’s ability to resonate with social media a justification for punishment? Donald trump has a large following and is responsible for some of the most horrible tweets, yet Mr Dorsey has no issue letting the presidential candidate stay on the platfrom.” The rhetorical question actively engages the audience to reason for themselves, whilst appealing to comparison.
Finally, accepting the popular opinion, “I get there is no excuse for Milo’s tweets” demonstrates that the archetypal right wing conservative that has been portrayed by all authors in the analysis does not fit the bill for all modern conservatives. Recommendations are made by Dunn: “Twitter has to stop picking and choosing the battels it wants to fight….Rules are fine, but they have to come with consistency.” Here it is evident that Dunn’s concern lies in the ambiguity and inconsistencies of the actions taken by Twitter when expelling media entities from its platform.
In the first two articles in particular, there is seen a propensity to characterise Yiannopoulos in a negative way, and over generalising the alt-right groups. The articles are universal in condemning the words of Yiannopoulos. The opportunity to portray him in a certain way was available to the authors, and the similar character constructions amalgamate to reveal a world view of Yiannopoulos that is negatively evaluated – a popular opinion. The argument structures vary in all articles, however prevalent is a deep understanding of viewership, and the importance of interpretive arguments when many can simply evaluate to the point of presumption. Articles two and four provide key insights into constructing arguments in a different way to that seen in general media coverage and evidenced in article three. The overall value judgments made equate to a singular, unified belief that the banishment of Yiannopoulos throws up a larger issue – the questionable approach taken by Twitter, and the need to review such policies.
Koh, Y. & Albergotti, R. 2014, Twitter Faces Free Speech Dilemma — At Conflict: A Desire Not to Censor and an Internet Now Awash in Violent and Pornographic Images, Eastern edition edn, New York, N.Y.
Nair, A. 2016, Head to Head: Free speech argument should not be used to justify hate speech, Carlsbad.
Robertson, A. 2016. Why was Twitter so vague about banning Milo Yiannopoulos?. The Verge.
Links to articles in order: