WikiLeaks and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have had harsh words over Twitter’s recent decision to ban noted Breitbart editor and troll Milo Yiannopoulos. This afternoon, WikiLeaks’ Twitter account declared the ban an example of "cyber feudalism," saying that Twitter had "banned conservative gay libertarian [Yiannopoulos] for speaking the 'wrong' way" to Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. According to an earlier Twitter statement, Yiannopoulos was banned for "inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others" after Jones began posting examples of racist and misogynist abuse she had received on the platform.
Dorsey soon replied to WikiLeaks, echoing this language. "We don't ban people for expressing their thoughts," he wrote. "Targeted abuse & inciting abuse against people however, that's not allowed."
Despite the fact that describing the ban as "cyber feudalism" doesn’t make a lot of sense, WikiLeaks pointed out a number of legitimate issues with the ban. As many people have, it noted that Twitter seemed to police abuse more strictly when the target was a celebrity, and that the exact reason for the ban wasn’t transparent — although, in Twitter’s defense, it’s said that Yiannopoulos was banned partly because he’s been censured on the platform before. It also suggested that Twitter have users rely on features like shared blocklists and "[get] out of the censorship/justice game," and while there’s room to debate whether a Twitter ban is "censorship" in this case, plenty of people have suggested that Twitter should focus more on tools that would make it harder to harass people in the first place, instead of banning after the fact. Dorsey, in fact, conceded that these were "all fair points," saying that "we are working to get here."
Wikileaks raised several fair points about the ban
After that, though, things started to go a little off the rails. First, WikiLeaks compared banning people on Twitter to Turkey’s recent mass arrests and (apparently) Stalin’s Great Purge in 1937 — yes, it was technically talking about the potential for score-settling and similar abuse, but until Twitter has the death penalty, the stakes here are slightly different. Then, it threatened to create its own alternative Twitter. "We will start a rival service if this keeps up because @WikiLeaks & our supporters are threatened by a space of feudal justice."
Well, that would end well.
Look, I’ve criticized Twitter’s anti-harassment setup generally and Yiannopoulos’ ban specifically. It’s too vague to help us pin down when Twitter will take action on abuse, and it doesn’t seem hugely out of line with what Yiannopoulos and other users have done in the past — so either Twitter is selectively picking its bans, or it doesn’t have a robust enough system to enforce its rules consistently.
But while I can’t say what WikiLeaks’ social network philosophy would be, the general culture it’s steeped in holds that human interaction is a grim, adversarial duty. It long ago threw its lot in with people who believe censorship isn’t just banning someone from a large public platform, but denying them a space on something as small as the comments of your own YouTube video or even refusing to read their bile by blocking them.
Most social network users don't want a mosh pit
There are places where this philosophy can work well, for a while — the pristine anarchy of 4chan’s /b/ board spawned large parts of today’s internet culture. But to use a common metaphor, Twitter is largely there for people who want a cocktail party, and telling them that what they really want is to get smacked around in a mosh pit is not a hugely attractive proposition. If you really want to shout into the void, you don’t need a new Twitter clone. You could just make a web page — or, I don’t know, join App.net.
The ideal version of Twitter would in fact do what WikiLeaks suggests: build tools to let people pick who they want to communicate with, then facilitate that as openly as possible. And obviously, this threat is probably just a throwaway quip. But it’s worth preemptively shooting down the idea that the symbolic effort would be worth taking seriously. Creating a functional social community that lets anybody talk to almost anybody else — which Twitter has been trying to manage for years — would take devotion, foresight, and a belief in the fundamental value of civil interaction. Right now, WikiLeaks talking about replicating it is about as useful as a homeopath promising a cure for cancer.