On Tuesday night, I was one of many, many people celebrating the permanent Twitter ban of Breitbart journalist and conservative rage-demon Milo Yiannopoulos. Yet despite my euphoria, something rang hollow.
There’s no doubt in my mind that booting the ringleader of notorious acts of hate-fueled harassment was the right thing for Twitter to do. The problem is that banning Milo—or ousting former Fox News chief and alleged serial sexual harasser Roger Ailes—is never enough. The enduring problems can and will survive until corporations decide to go beyond punishing only the instigators of abuse and address the structural issues that allow such hostile environments to take hold.
To be fair, Yiannopoulos—a man so notorious that he was known to the communities he targeted simply as “Milo”— was unique in the sadism of his attacks. He’d made his name as one of the loudest voices in the Internet hate group GamerGate, encouraging a group of disaffected anti-feminist “gamers” to pile on targets like female game developer Zoe Quinn with articles bearing such titles as “Feminist Bullies Are Tearing the Gaming Industry Apart.” The events of GamerGate are by now well-known. Multiple women received death threats for daring to call out sexism in the video-game industry. Women’s home addresses were shared online; feminist video game critics cancelled speeches because of viable threats to massacre the audience; and “prank” callers sent armed police with assault rifles to terrorize victims or their families. What’s truly terrible about all this is that Yiannopoulos, instead of being frightened by the prospect that he might get someone killed, seems to have interpreted it all as an invitation to keep going.
In fact, he amped his rhetoric up. Though he’d gotten his big break by aiming specifically at “feminists,” he quickly embraced white supremacy as a key element of the alt-right platform, writing approvingly of using racist speech for its “shock value.” His prospective targets soon learned to check their speech so as not to risk being swarmed with vile invective from Milo and his followers—or worse, having their actual safety endangered. It never helped. He’d been suspended for abuse on multiple occasions, but he always came back. And once he came back, he always got worse.
Ultimately, what brought down Milo was a harassment campaign against Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. After he pointed his followers at her via a Breitbart Ghostbusters review, Jones spent hours retweeting and reporting the racist abuse she received. These included Photoshopped Tweets, spread by Milo, in which she appeared to say foul things; Photoshopped pictures of semen on her face; and hundreds of people hurling racist slurs against her, including calling her an ape or gorilla. Shortly afterward, Jones announced she was leaving Twitter. Milo’s decision to spread of the Photoshopped tweets seems to have been the last straw for Twitter. A day later, he was gone.
Milo hadn’t done anything new. The hateful campaign against Jones was pretty much exactly in line with the abuse other victims had previously reported. But he’d finally slipped and gone after someone famous enough that people in power, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, would notice. The same mistake was the downfall of his left-wing counterpart, Matt Bruenig—who left Twitter not after any of the many abuse reports he’d accumulated over the years, but after he and his followers targeted Hillary Clinton aide Neera Tanden and, later, his then-employer Demos.
In both cases, multiple outlets and journalists chose to focus exclusively on the vitriol Milo and Bruenig had directed at high-profile women, rather than framing these events as part of a larger pattern of harassment. As a result, Twitter may emerge from these incidents believing that the best way to handle abuse is to stop offenders only when they go after powerful people, rather than by instating firm controls on harassment that would keep the social-media site from serving as a breeding ground for abuse.
Banning Milo—or Bruenig, or Chuck Johnson, or any one person who is known to instigate harassment campaigns against individuals—can’t solve the bigger problem of harassment campaigns. Those campaigns explicitly rely upon dozens or hundreds of followers who are willing to carry out the abusers’ wishes. In the short term, reporting a high-profile ringleader usually serves to make those harassment campaigns worse. The men in question become free-speech martyrs in their followers’ eyes, and their fans seize the occasion to punish the people who dared to step forward and flag abuse. This is why, even in the midst of all the euphoria over Milo’s suspension—and I must stress: I know victims who responded to the news with actual dancing—I heard from multiple women who reacted to the ban with outright fear.
This fear is well-grounded, and will remain so until we live in a culture that takes both online and offline harassment seriously. The truth is that harassment and abuse are never about individual people; they’re about structures. When we help the victims of harassment, the solution should not be to deal with a single offender; it should be to deal with all the people who enabled the problem to exist and refused to solve it until it reached a critical mass.
Consider the case of Roger Ailes, the recently-departed chief of Fox News. The specific allegation that brought his history of alleged sexual harassment to widespread public attention was from former FOX host Gretchen Carlson. Yet reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault from Ailes had been more or less common knowledge for many years. His biographer, for example, had reported four such cases in the 2014 book The Loudest Voice in the Room. Since Carlson came forward, at least 20 women have also made accusations against Ailes.
Here, as with Milo, Ailes only faced consequences when he went after a person who was prominent enough to draw serious attention to a long-ignored problem. Ailes himself reportedly told his victims that agreeing to coerced sex with him would mean they were obligated to have coerced sex with other men—a clear indication of how high-powered harassers rarely operate in a vacuum. One under-reported factor in Carlson’s story about Ailes is that Carlson came into Ailes’ line of fire by alleging sexual harassment and discriminatory behavior from another employee of Fox News. She spoke to management specifically because she said her Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy had “engaged in a pattern of severe and pervasive sexual harassment,” which included “mocking her during commercial breaks, shunning her off-air, refusing to engage with her on-air, [and] belittling her contributions to the show.” Yet, when she reported this up the chain, she was led straight to Ailes—who, she claims, then told her that she needed to have sex with him to solve the problem.
Ultimately, the Fox News scandal isn’t a story about Roger Ailes being rotten. It’s a story about an entire rotten organization that internalized the sexual harassment and abuse of women as part of its standard operations, until the only recourse for a sexual harassment victim was to appeal to another, yet more powerful sexual harasser.
That is a story familiar to most harassment victims. Even if Milo is gone from Twitter for good, his 380,000 followers are still active on the site. And they’re currently raining hell down on those they perceive to have victimized him.
Until there’s a real solution to institutional harassment, victims’ best option is to shoot for the legs: Put pressure on the people complicit in abuse, either by cheering it on or through silent acquiescence, until the social pressure is great enough that accessories to harassment either need to speak out against it or formally acknowledge that they support it.
But there are better solutions. A multi-billion dollar company with a well-known abuse problem, like Twitter or Fox, has both the money and the time to invest in stopping abuse. In Twitter’s case, for example, the problem of widespread harassment could be addressed by hiring a large staff of full-time moderators and asking developers to create abuse controls, such as dogpile reporting, IP tracking for abusers who use multiple accounts, and real-time reporting to authorities for credible threats. In this way, Twitter could ensure that its platform is not best known as a means by which to target and terrorize marginalized people.
Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see these kinds of reforms until until we achieve the wider cultural change of listening to victims and taking them seriously—even when they’re not working in the White House or starring in a multi-million-dollar blockbuster. Until then, all we can do is celebrate the few, rare victories, welcoming Jones back to Twitter, and dancing at the news that Milo is finally gone.