After hitting new lows last April, Twitter Inc (NYSE:TWTR) was starting to recover some strength in May. Twitter appeared to have found ways to encourage more visits and user signups. Getting more users is the ultimate tool for building revenue for social media companies like Twitter. Therefore, it comes as a surprise that Twitter would ban a prominent user—and do it now, just as it needs as many users as possible.
The issue in brief was captured in this tweet: “Two sets of standards on Twitter – one for Conservatives, and a different one for Liberal social justice warriors.” The author of the tweet is one Milo Yiannopoulos, a flamboyant and conservative pundit on Breitbart.com. His fans simply call him Milo.
This Is Why Twitter Is Wrong About Milo
Yiannopoulos did not like the latest reboot of the popular Ghostbusters franchise.
He wrote a scathing review of the film and was especially critical of actress Leslie Jones’s performance. His rather vitriolic fans showered Jones, a Saturday Night Live performer, with insults on Twitter.
Some of the insults were racist. In fact, the abuse was so bad that Jones decided to abandon Twitter altogether. She announced her departure in a tweet. But while dealing with insults is part of the Twitter game—just follow the ping-pong match of insults between Kanye West, the Kardashian sisters, and Taylor Swift—the racist nature of the tweets targeting Jones prompted the site to ban Yiannopoulos, whom administrators deemed to be the instigator-in-chief.
Yiannopoulos himself did not tweet racist insults; those came from his fans. Still, Yiannopoulos paid the price.
Free speech is the very fuel on which Twitter runs. Therefore, any threat to free speech on Twitter is also a threat to Twitter stock. Some Yiannopoulos followers have quit Twitter altogether in solidarity; I happen to know one personally.
Yet while nobody should tolerate hatred and hate speech, it seems that Twitter was just waiting for an opportunity to get rid of Yiannopoulos. He did not actually threaten anybody’s life in his tweets. Threats of physical harm go beyond free speech and enter an entirely different category of concern. But Yiannopoulos shouldn’t have been banned over his tweets and the alleged abuse of an individual—it was his followers who tweeted the worst messages.
First Major Celebrity Ban for Twitter
While Jones’s fans may feel vindicated, if they care about the freedom to express their thoughts on Twitter, they should ask the site to reverse the Yiannopoulos ban.
As for Twitter Inc and Twitter stock, the company is shooting itself in the foot. If anything, it could have drawn in more users by coming to Jones’s defense and highlighting Milo’s insulting comments. It could have used the entire controversy as a tool to build the number of visits while making users feel comfortable in the knowledge that, barring life-threatening content, they would enjoy full freedom of speech.
It would have been better for Twitter to ban the individual posters behind the worst tweets to Jones. But to ban Yiannopoulos for allegedly instigating them is counterproductive to Twitter’s reputation and business.
In order to keep growing, benefiting users and shareholders alike, Twitter must operate by a basic principle: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is why Twitter has felt so liberating for its over 300 million users. Twitter Inc cannot afford to compromise this principle.
The Bottom Line on TWTR Stock
Yiannopoulos was also suspended temporarily for making Islamophobic comments after the Orlando shooting last June. But he cultivates an ultra-conservative persona on Breitbart. His followers and detractors alike know what to expect from him. It is the nature of modern media culture that personalities build their online personas, and that discussions, arguments, and insult campaigns drive social media traffic.
Yiannopoulos is narcissistic—he does not hide that. He boasts about his 200,000 subscribers on YouTube and his 300,000 followers on Twitter. He says he’s more popular than other journalists, and he may well be. It’s hard to say what his actual influence is. But he has entertainment value and he does draw a huge following online, including from those who don’t like him.
Silencing people makes them stronger. Isn’t that the lesson taught by all the great social justice fighters, from Jesus Christ to Gandhi to Mandela? It applies to conservative types as well, not just to the darlings of the liberal world.
If Yiannopoulos’ account is reinstated, it will be a bullish indicator for Twitter stock. If he chooses to stay away, it’s his prerogative.