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Twitter won’t solve its harassment problem by banning one jerk

·Contributing Editor

Apparently, you can be too annoying for Twitter.

Tuesday night, that social network permanently banned writer Milo Yiannopoulos for suggesting to his roughly 400,000 followers that actress Leslie Jones deserved some hate mail — an invitation that resulted in a torrent of racist insults that led Jones to swear off Twitter.

Yiannopoulos’s initial tweet was not racist, just insulting. The conservative website Breitbart News mocked Jones for voicing her irritation at complaints about her performance in the female-led remake of the movie “Ghostbusters”: “If at first you don’t succeed (because your work is terrible), play the victim. EVERYONE GETS HATE MAIL FFS.”

The ensuing hate mail compared Jones to a gorilla and included racist tweets from fake accounts impersonating her, among other hateful messages the “Saturday Night Live” cast member began retweeting to publicize the problem.

After days of onlookers demanding that Twitter Do Something About This, the service sent Yiannopoulos a form e-mail — reproduced in a Breitbart post — informing him that his @Nero account had been suspended permanently for violating “our rules prohibiting participating in or inciting targeted abuse of individuals.”

Who is this guy, anyway?

The polite way to describe Yiannopoulos is “provocateur,” but “professional jerk” might be a more accurate label. He has a long history of insulting the character of opponents while complaining that the real problem is the politically-correct oppression of men.

His sneering dismissal of complaints about inadequate female representation at tech conferences three years ago ran under the headline “Put A Sock In It, You D—less Wonders.”

His take on Gamergate — a scandal involving sexism in video-game culture — in a Breitbart story: “an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners” who were “lying, bullying and manipulating their way around the internet for profit and attention.”

(Yiannopoulos did allow that the deluges of death threats received by feminist critics of gamer culture were “admittedly feverish” and “ungallant.”)

Yiannopoulos’s Twitter presence did not depart from that pattern of trolling, as I saw in my occasional checks of his profile. But being a jerk doesn’t break Twitter’s terms of service.

Twitter took the novel step of removing Yiannopoulos’s verification badge in January without quite explaining why, then suspended him briefly in June for a series of anti-Islamic tweets following the Orlando shooting.

Now Twitter (TWTR) is done with him — but it’s not clear what made this offense capital.

What are the rules here?

Twitter’s rules don’t document what warrants excommunication, and there are few other obvious cases — terrorist supporters excluded — beyond last May’s lifetime ban of right-wing troll Chuck Johnson.

In that post at Breitbart, Yiannopoulos denounced the “the cowardly suspension of my account” as an act of “the totalitarian regressive left” that left Twitter “a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists.”

In an e-mail, Yiannopoulos ruled out returning to Twitter under another name (“I want my account back”) and accepted Twitter’s right to police its own property. Twitter’s not the government, so he’s not going to complain about his First Amendment rights being violated.

“They’re entitled to make terrible decisions,” he wrote.

But he decried being blamed for things other people said. “I am not responsible for the actions of millions of other people on social media,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to suggest I should police the language of other people.”

Did Twitter boot all the people who took to their keyboards to tweet racist bile at Jones? That’s unclear, too.

Policy versus product

Three critics of Twitter’s approach to harassment had no use for Yiannopoulos but agreed that the rules are unevenly enforced.

Caroline Sinders, a user-experience researcher, said Yiannopoulos’s expulsion was deserved if the actual offense was that “he and his followers” spread fake tweets impersonating Jones; Twitter hasn’t confirmed that. She called out “opaqueness” in the rules about harassment in general.

Michelle Ferrier, an associate dean at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication and founder of the anti-harassment project TrollBusters, wrote in an e-mail: “We see this type of hate happening all the time on Twitter, yet Twitter only responds swiftly when it’s a public figure who is in harm’s way.”

A Twitter publicist sent a statement noting the company would “prohibit additional types of abusive behavior and allow more types of reporting, with the goal of reducing the burden on the person being targeted.”

Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center, said Yiannopoulos’s ban wouldn’t help.

“It’s not a systemic fix, it’s not a product fix, it’s an interpretation of policy that is not itself clear to people,” she said.

As Chemaly and others said during SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit in March, the underlying issue is a design that empowers random people to dog-pile on a stranger for whatever reason. (See also, “Bernie Bros” mobbing Hillary Clinton supporters for their supposed ideological impurity.) Sinders made a similar point in a talk at the Collision conference in April about settings changes to make Twitter less abuse-friendly, such as blocking replies from people who don’t follow you.

A social-network design that continues to enable anti-social behavior is a gun that can point at anybody, not just the celebrities that Twitter needs to keep growing its audience.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.