Earlier this week Marc asserted that Twitter is "taking a side in the culture war" wars by removing the identity-confirming blue check from the account of Milo Yiannopoulos, who is what we refer to these days as a personality, like an unusually literate Kardashian. I think Marc is blurring the difference between individual and institutional action.
But let's get this out of the way at the start: Twitter is a private company. Conservative extremist that I am, I believe that private companies have free speech rights. They use those rights to create their brand. Conservatives normally approve of this. They question, for instance, why the government should be able to force a bakery to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage when that contradicts the business' beliefs and brand. Many progressives, on the other hand, applaud such government intervention. Cases like this have an odd way of flipping that dynamic: conservatives cast about for legal theories that might let the government regulate how private businesses deal with speech they don't like, and progressives suddenly applaud private autonomy.
We feel that places like Twitter are a public place, and ought to be run like a public forum. But it's self-indulgent to mistake our feelings for reality or law. Twitter is free to us. It makes money (if it makes money) by serving our eyeballs to advertisers. Our feelings and desires are relevant to Twitter only to the extent it wants to brand itself or wants to retain sufficient eyeballs to sell. Otherwise it's irrational to expect Twitter to care what we want. In deciding how the Kylo Ren action figure ought to be posed on the box art, Disney does not consider the sentiments of the Kylo Ren action figure. Nobody's entitled to a free corporate platform run the way they like: this, too, is supposed to be a conservative ideal. You get what you pay for, and we aren't paying. Can we threaten to vote with our feet and go be somebody else's eyeball supply if we don't like how Twitter is run? Of course we can, just like we can refuse to eat at Chik-Fil-A if we don't like the owners' politics. But if we couch it as a right, we look silly.
But on to Twitter's side-taking. I think Marc probably overstates Twitter's focus and degree of deliberation. Big companies, even when run by ideologues, tend to make decisions like big companies, not like individuals. The decision-making looks less cinematic and more cynical. The focus tends to be on branding, but mostly on money-making, avoidance of unpleasantness, reduction of cost, and ease of use. Twitter's line employees are almost certainly disproportionately liberal, and by assigning command-and-control of individual account decisions to them, the impact is probably that evaluations of abuse complaints will have a liberal bias. Similarly, if you make a corporate decision to police harassment (or at least pretend to), and the people doing the policing have a bias, then the results will have a bias. But that's not the same as a deliberate decision to take sides; it's a cost-driven, practicality-driven decision. Consistency in such decision-making is expensive and troublesome. Running decisions up the chain to ensure consistency on inherently subjective calls costs time and money. Moreover, Twitter's lack of clear articulated standards about exactly what speech will get you in trouble is a feature, not a bug. If you have clear articulated standards, then there will be endless rules-lawyering about why this cases fell under the definition but that case didn't, and you will be more vulnerable to legal attacks (for instance, from people saying that you ban folks of one ethnicity for conduct but folks of another ethnicity get a pass, which could even create a viable claim). Again: the fact that Twitter kinda looks like a public forum if you squint doesn't stop it from being a big business.
In short, I think Marc substantially overstates the coherence and intentionality of Twitter's side-taking.
If Twitter is taking sides, then it's being uncharacteristically incompetent.
Look: Milo's a troll. There's nothing inherently wrong with being a troll. Some trolls are amusing. But de gustibus non est disputandum. I prefer somewhat more subtle trolls. Milo's a troll in the tradition of Ann Coulter, saying outrageous things and benefiting from both the fist-pumping of the like-minded and the profitable outrage of people who think it's sensible to feed trolls. Milo's no Ann Coulter, of course, but it seems he aspires to be number two, and number two tries harder. To my taste Milo's trolling is too loud, too precious, too busy, too edgelord-twee. Plus, he strikes me as a rather blatant huckster. Only fickle fate has led to him trying to sell me anti-feminist tropes rather than extended warranties. He says some phenomenally nasty things, and sends chortling heaps of clumsily animated body soil to threaten and curse at people he calls out. He does so to an extent that I believe Marc significantly understates. Does he genuinely hate the people he reviles? Does he actually believe the more shocking lines he delivers in self-conscious and belabored fashion, like a dull eighth-grader attempting Macbeth? I rather doubt it. He's probably indifferent to them, and to the impact of his words. But he likes the attention — the clicks and the credulous adulation and the money. Whomever Milo hates, Milo loves Milo.
Given that, Twitter's action is like throwing Milo into the brier patch and throwing hundred-dollar-bills in after him. The removal of the silly blue check is utterly insubstantial, but promotes Milo's conservatives-are-persecuted-and-liberals-are-evil narrative. It's free publicity. To his audience suggesting that he harasses ideological opponents is a promotion, not a rebuke. It's like banning a hot dog stand from one side of the park on the explicit grounds that the hot dogs are too delicious. He should be sending them some sort of fruit basket. It is, in short, more like fumbling decentralized decision-making and less like a centralized agenda.
I'd be interested in seeing Marc's evidence of systemic bias in Twitter's approach to what is harassment and what isn't. I have noticed anecdotal differences. But then I've also noticed plenty of bad conduct from "the right" that hasn't been punished. My strong suspicion is that the difference is not the result of a corporate agenda, but of a routine corporate decision to decentralize decision-making.
I'll probably stay on Twitter, knowing that I could get kicked off at any time by some low-level decision maker who doesn't like me. When I don't want to take that risk, I'll pay for my platform — like here.
[Sometime soon, I want to say more about how blurring the line between First Amendment violations and "spirit of free speech" violations leads to all sorts of bad attitudes, like thinking that your speech can suppress mine.]
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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