Leslie Jones quit Twitter after being the target of racist abuse.
On Wednesday, Twitter permanently banned the conservative writer Milo
Yiannopoulos as it cracked down on a wave of racist abuse targeting the
Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones.
Twitter also told the Breitbart Tech
writer, who is one of the best-known figures among the internet’s
“alt-right”, that his account would not be restored in the future.
permanent suspension 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 when to use it.
generally comment on questions about individual accounts, citing privacy
and security reasons. Users who are perma-banned from Twitter are, as a
practice, not told which tweets of theirs prompted the ban – only that
they are banned, that their accounts will not be restored, and which
part of Twitter’s rules the company says were violated.
Twitter also doesn’t have publicly available guidelines for
the threshold that must be met for a permanent ban; it only states in
its rules against abusive behaviour that “any accounts and related
accounts engaging in the activities specified below may be temporarily
locked and/or subject to permanent suspension”.
Twitter declined to provide the Washington Post
with additional information on which policy violations have triggered
permanent suspensions in the past, or the frequency with which Twitter
hands them out for abuse and harassment violations.
five high-profile instances of Twitter’s permanent ban in action. But
before we get to that, here’s a caveat: While we’ve done our best to
determine the status of each of these accounts, a permanent ban can look
a lot like a temporary suspension from the outside. Some users who have
been temporarily suspended from Twitter may simply choose not to take
action to restore their accounts.
In three of these cases, the
banned individuals have provided screenshots of the messages Twitter
sent them announcing their permanent bans. In the other two cases, the
context and fallout from their suspensions make it seem extremely likely
that the bans were permanent.
Milo Yiannopoulos is a well-known member of the internet’s “alt-right”.
Twitter permanently banned Yiannopoulos – aka @nero on
Twitter – in the immediate fallout from a racist abuse campaign against
Jones. Jones quit Twitter on Tuesday, after posting screenshots of an
onslaught of comments she was getting.
Yiannopoulos often used
his popular Twitter account to identify and mock enemies of the
“alt-right”, a grouping of anti-PC diehards, trolls and racist meme
lords who have united around their common liberal targets.
Tuesday, Yiannopoulos started making fun of Jones, particularly her
response to the racist abuse she was getting. “EVERYONE GETS HATE MAIL
FFS,” one tweet read. Another called Jones “barely literate”. Later, he
shared faked screenshots that made it appear as if Jones were making
profane and offensive postings.
Twitter didn’t say exactly why it banned Yiannopoulos, only telling the Breitbart
writer that he was permanently banned for a violation of their rules
“prohibiting participating in or inciting targeted abuse of
individuals”. Yiannopoulos said the suspension was cowardly. Reactions
to Yiannopoulos’ suspension fell along the lines you’d expect: His
supporters – he had more than 300,000 followers at the time of his
suspension – rallied behind the #FreeMilo hashtag, which trended in the
United States for several hours, and said that he’d done nothing wrong.
Many others cheered Twitter’s decision to ban someone whose mocking,
trollish tweets about people on the alt-right’s bad side were often the
prelude to a mob of abuse.
The Yiannopoulos ban was part of Twitter’s response to the abuse targeting Jones, Twitter said in a statement.
was subject to several warnings from the social network over the course
of his Twitter career and had lost his blue verification checkmark in
January for violating Twitter’s rules. If he tries to return to Twitter,
the site will likely notice and take action to remove him again,
quickly. The question becomes whether it’s even possible for Twitter to
give the same scrutiny to the mob of regular accounts that harassed
Jones on Tuesday. How long would it take for Twitter to discover if they
OnlineCensorship.org tracks instances of account
suspensions and content takedowns across several social media platforms.
Its data suggests that not all instances of rule violations play out
the same over time and that one major factor seems to be celebrity.
“Regular users, when they lose their account to a ban, can simply start
up another and go unnoticed (unless they attract attention again or get
reported),” said Jillian York, a co-founder of OnlineCensorship.org. “We
see this with Isis-supporting users all the time – their large-follow
account goes down, and the next thing you know, they’re regaining on
Charles C Johnson
time as Twitter’s most notorious troll, Johnson did a lot to earn his
reputation as an internet villain. He published the home addresses of New York Times reporters. He broadcast the full name of the woman at the centre of Rolling Stone‘s now-discredited University of Virginia rape story (and circulated an image that he said was of her – it wasn’t).
who is practising his particular version of bounty
hunting-as-journalism elsewhere, seemed to always have a target, or a
good sense of the line between accountability and malice. But it was a
tweet asking for funds for “taking out” Black Lives Matter activist
DeRay Mckesson that, it appears, prompted Twitter to ban him permanently
from the platform in May 2015.
The ban came about a month after
Twitter expanded the language it used to describe prohibited threatening
behaviour on the platform.
Johnson had a clear history of
violating Twitter’s rules against abuse and harassment, even when the
list of banned behaviours was much shorter than it is today. And many,
including several of his targets, cheered his suspension as long
But some writers and anti-censorship advocates noted at
the time that the particular way this suspension played out raises some
questions about how Twitter enforces its policies. Over at Slate,
Amanda Hess suggested that the tweet that finally did in Johnson’s
Twitter days may have drawn such a dramatic response because of the
prominence of the person it targeted. Noting that a memo from former
Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo once expressed concern about the
effect rampant abuse was having on Twitter’s “core users”, Hess noted,
“With 133,000 followers, DeRay Mckesson is one of them.”
best known as the man who was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing for
shooting to death Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, had a second career
as an online troll. After several major controversies about the content
of his Twitter account, Twitter appeared to kick out Zimmerman for good
in December, just after he posted a series of tweets with semi-nude
photographs of his ex-girlfriend and her contact information.
Johnson, Zimmerman hasn’t publicly stated that his ban was permanent,
and Twitter doesn’t confirm that sort of thing to journalists. But going
on the fact that his account has been offline for several months,
combined with the severity of the rule violations, it seems likely that
Zimmerman was permanently suspended.
At the time, Twitter
directed us to their policy banning “revenge porn” in response to
questions about Zimmerman’s ban. The now-deleted tweets accused
Zimmerman’s ex of sleeping with a “dirty Muslim” and of stealing from
him. Twitter’s revenge porn policy bans users from posting “non-public,
personal phone numbers” of others, along with “non-public, personal
email addresses” and “intimate photos or videos that were taken or
distributed without the subject’s consent”. Zimmerman appeared to
violate all three.
The tweets prompted speculation that Zimmerman
might find himself in trouble with the law yet again in Florida, this
time for violating the state’s revenge porn law. But Mary Anne Franks, a
law professor at the University of Miami and legislative and tech
policy director of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, told us after
Zimmerman’s Twitter suspension that this was likely not the case.
Basically, the photographs Zimmerman posted did not violate the state’s
narrow definition of “nudity”. “It’s possible,” Franks said, “that
Zimmerman may have researched the law to make sure that he didn’t
While Zimmerman’s account remains suspended, he has
still been able to generate controversy on the social platform. His name
trended on Twitter in May after he decided to auction off the gun he
used to kill Martin.
Robert Stacy McCain
permanently suspended the alt-right, anti-feminist writer McCain in
February. McCain has repeatedly questioned Twitter’s explanation – sent
to him in an email, which he posted to his blog – that he was suspended
for inciting harassment.
His suspension became a rallying cry for
those who believed a never-proven theory that Twitter was conspiring
with feminist activists to censor conservatives. They started tweeting
their outrage with the #freestacy hashtag, and then claimed that it,
too, was being censored from Twitter’s trending lists.
said McCain was suspended for participating in “targeted abuse”, a rule
that McCain sees as essentially meaningless. “Anybody could be offended
by anything,” McCain told me in a lengthy, wide-ranging phone
conversation in February, shortly after his suspension. “The question
is, who complained and why was it construed as targeting abuse?”
asked McCain what he thought of Twitter’s stated position that online
harassment can have the effect of intimidating its victims into silence.
He replied, “That’s crazy.”
McCain, whose account was locked in
the past for rule violations, has said repeatedly that he was doing
nothing on Twitter to deserve a suspension. And because it became a big
deal after the fact (once the tweets were already deleted from Twitter,
along with his entire account) it’s impossible to go back and look at
the record of what he said before his suspension. That, perhaps, is why
this case so intensely captured the support and imagination of users who
felt Twitter was taking a stand against them for their conservative
When asked about the theory that Twitter was cracking
down on conservative users in February, a representative categorically
denied it, saying: “When abusive content is reported to us, we will
suspend the account without regard for political ideology.”
American rapper Azealia Banks. Photo / Supplied
Banks had a long history of picking fights on Twitter
before her indefinite suspension from the site in May – to the point
that some argued that her trolling had overshadowed her career as a
rapper. Her Twitter beefs are well-documented in the music press and are
often characterised by homophobic slurs. Once she got into an extremely
graphic and bizarre Twitter fight with former Alaska Governor Sarah
Palin, after apparently misreading a “hoax” article about Palin’s views
on slavery and believing it was real.
But the tweets that appear
to have led to her suspension targeted singer Zayn Malik and a
14-year-old Disney star named Skai Jackson. The fight began with Banks
accusing Malik of plagiarising one of her music videos, and quickly
escalated until Banks called Malik a “curry-scented b****”. When Jackson
tweeted that “Azealia Banks needs to simmer down a little”, Banks
replied that the teenager needed to “grow some hips and start [her]
The exact action – indefinite or permanent suspension – that Twitter took against Banks after that isn’t clear.
her subsequent attempt to return to Twitter under a different handle
and address the situation led to that account being suspended, too,
suggesting that Twitter doesn’t want the rapper to return at all.
her second account was suspended, Banks tweeted that she believed
Twitter suspended her because they “have a problem with a black b****
speaking her mind but not Isis accounts, Nazis, child porn etc”. She
added: “Something’s wrong when a black woman’s opinion calls for
suspension. Where’s @realDonaldTrump suspension?”