Over the last few months, the press media have been saturated with stories and videos about university protests, ‘Nenegate’, and (more recently) the familiar story of Nkandla. Abroad, the US has been pre-occupied with electoral politics, while Europe is focused wholly on the migrant crisis. Anyone would be forgiven for not knowing that Twitter – one of the largest global social media platforms – is faring very poorly. This is not simply misfortune, however – much of the adversity that Twitter now faces, and may yet face, is self-inflicted.
Cracking down on free speech and #JeSuisMilo
As the now dominant ‘social justice’ narrative has gained strength, media firms have cracked down on speech and firmly set limits on what expression and thought they will tolerate. The editors of many news and commentary sites seem to be pandering to one particular strand of thought in their selection and publication of content. Some of these sites have closed their comments sections altogether, ostensibly in order to ‘protect’ some users from others. As private businesses, they have every right to do this – but they will also have to face the consequences for their decisions.
This, of course, brings us to what’s been happening at Twitter. Earlier this year, Twitter removed the verified status of Milo Yiannopolous. Yiannopolous is a young British tech journalist known for his conservative views, and is outspoken in his opposition to contemporary feminism. He has often been controversial, especially with his Twitter presence; last year, for example, he hosted a poll asking whether respondents would rather their children ‘had’ feminism or cancer.
When Twitter removed the ‘verified’ status from his account, as Breitbart reported, they neither gave a clear indication of which rule Yiannopolous had supposedly violated, nor indicated whether there was an appeal process he could follow.
Yiannopolous’ fans and followers were furious. Immediately following the unverification, the hashtag #JeSuisMilo was the third highest trending globally. In addition, many of Yiannopolous’ fans replaced their profile pictures with his, and changed their user names to ‘Milo Yiannopolous’.
Given CEO Jack Dorsey’s claim that Twitter “stands for freedom of expression”, unverifying Yiannopolous was significant: it revealed where Twitter really stands with regards to freedom of expression. Despite being controversial and provocative, Yiannopolous hasn’t exceeded the reasonable bounds of free speech.
As Yiannopolous and his Breitbart Tech colleague Allum Bokhari have suggested, Twitter is significantly biased in favour of feminism and ‘progressivism’. After being unverified, Yiannopolous suggested that there would be a ‘purge’ of prominent political conservatives on Twitter, and – while that description may be somewhat alarmist – Twitter nonetheless seems to have delivered on that prediction, locking accounts for apparently no reason other than enthusiastic support for Donald Trump. This, in combination with some poor decisions regarding the mechanics of its own platform, is causing Twitter to alienate large portions of its user base.
Plan B: the ‘Trust and Safety Council’
In an attempt to set more clear parameters on tolerable speech – and perhaps to save face in light of what appears to be a very arbitrary system of rule enforcement – Twitter announced last week that it has teamed up with over 40 organisations to form its ‘Trust and Safety Council’. These organisations will advise and guide them so as to “ensure people can continue to express themselves freely and safely on Twitter.” For any other company, this may have been a very beneficial and positive development – but Twitter seems determined to shoot itself in the foot.
One of the organisations included in Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council is Feminist Frequency. Its head is arch-feminist Anita Sarkeesian, the media, culture and video gaming critic who infamously declared that “everything is sexist, everything is racist [and] everything is homophobic.” Sarkeesian has become well known amongst cultural libertarians as someone who considers all sorts of video games ‘sexist’ and ‘problematic’. Moreover, she includes in her definition of ‘egregious’ online harassment criticisms like “you suck” or “you’re a liar”. To cultural libertarians – those on both the ‘left’ and ‘right’ who fundamentally believe in freedom of expression – Sarkeesian is a symbol of the ridiculous and authoritarian desire to unreasonably police individuals’ speech.
It may well be that Sarkeesian has little sway in the overall scheme of what will eventually become Twitter’s policies and actions, but as with the Milo Yiannopolous debacle, Twitter has sent a very clear signal to its users. This is not just about her presence on the Council, or the further concern about many of the other organisations which make up the Council, but the fact that this is another in a series of poor decision made by the social media firm.
Where to from here?
Twitter’s monthly active user growth seems to have recently stagnated, and it has fallen several places in the rankings of the most used social networks. In January, it announced the departure of four of its top executives – this following the resignation of its CEO in the middle of 2015.
While Twitter has talked-up its user-oriented approach, the hashtag #RIPTwitter trended internationally a little over a week ago as news emerged that Twitter may drastically change its timeline functionality.
For each of the last two financial years, Twitter made a net loss of over $500 million. Investors have clearly shown a lack of confidence in the company: Twitter’s share price recently hit an all-time low, and continues to hover around $15. To put that into perspective, its share price was around $50 less than a year ago.
Needless to say, if Twitter was a person, it would be on life support. It could still come back from its (primarily) self-inflicted wounds, but that would require a serious change in its approach.
Ironically, Milo Yiannopolous used the platform to succinctly outline what Twitter has been doing wrong, and what it should be doing if it wants to thrive. His most striking comment is this: “Free speech isn’t just good ethics – it’s good business.” Even if the free-speech-hating social justice narrative is the dominant one, there are still enough people who value real openness and honesty to make their presence and impact known.
Twitter’s fate remains to be seen. Absent certain crucial changes, Twitter may well be a casualty of its own obstinacy.