As of today, Twitter has lost two high-profile members. Following a barrage of racist, sexist cyber-bullying and harassment, Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones wrote that she was leaving the social media site "with tears and a very sad heart." In response, Twitter leaders permanently suspended known provocateur and Breitbart contributor Milo Yiannopoulos, who had actively encouraged his 338,000 followers to target Jones.
Before leaving, Jones had been tweeting screenshots of some of the vitriolic messages she'd been sent: images comparing her to apes, insults, and slurs, among other racist, sexist comments—as well as (clearly fake) homophobic tweets sent from a fake account made to look like her own. After hours of blocking and reporting the perpetrators, she left the space entirely.
Read more: When Women Harass Women Online
For years, critics of Twitter's harassment policies—women and people of color in particular—have said that sexist and racist abuse on the social media platform is a major issue. "Online harassment has become the intellectual equivalent of street harassment," says media critic Jennifer Pozner, who founded Women in Media & News, a media analysis and advocacy group. "It is the attempt to police and punish women for being in a public space. It's men and boys saying, 'Stay out of my playground.'"
According to Pozner, Twitter has been behind the curve in terms of protecting its users. Its terms of service, she says, have long favored its more bigoted users over those they attack.
"Leslie Jones is a high-profile example of a problem we've been seeing for years now, where women and people of color are subject to the vilest attacks, to doxxing, to unleashed bigotry and threats of violence, and they leave," Pozner says. "They leave the public commons. They sacrifice their right to free speech under the onslaught of verbal violence."
After his account was suspended, Yiannopoulos sent out a statement claiming that his First Amendment rights had been violated. "Twitter's permanent suspension of my account makes a mockery of their claims to be a free speech platform," he wrote, further claiming that the site upholds "a carefully crafted facade of leftist approved ideas."
"Like so many platforms before them, their efforts to enforce groupthink will be their undoing," he said.
As Pozner sees it, failing to address harassment stifles free speech in a far more harmful way: by actively silencing marginalized communities and forcing them off the platform. "When we are chased out of these spaces by bands of misogynists and white supremacists, it not only leaves the public commons dominated by hateful and violent forces, but it also shrinks the pool of users who could access political, journalist, academic, and professional opportunities," she tells Broadly.
And while Twitter has now permanently banned Yiannopoulos, Pozner says that's not enough. "There's been a little bit of movement on Twitter's part in the past couple of years to try to popularize and expand their reporting tools for harassment," she notes, "but they still have a really long way to go. I think the Leslie Jones incident shows that they are not committed to responding to these attacks fast enough or well enough. They need to figure out ways to make sure there is zero tolerance for ongoing harassment and threats to their users."