Twitter's removal of journalist and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos's verification badge for unspecified rules violations has pushed the company — in the midst of a crackdown on harassment — deeper into the politicized battle over online speech.
Though Yiannopoulos is still on the platform, the self-described supervillain is widely impersonated and the loss of the verification badge could well make it difficult for him to distribute his message on Twitter.
"The primary purpose of verification is to combat impersonation," Yiannopoulos told BuzzFeed News in an email. "I can't think of anyone on the internet more impersonated (whether out of affection or otherwise) than me."
One possible Yiannopoulos violation: a top Twitter executive suggested it was for a Tweet containing the phrase: "You deserve to be harassed."
The executive, Head of Commerce Nathan Hubbard, said he wasn't speaking for the company. And Twitter, citing a policy of not commenting on individual accounts, declined to comment. But it confirmed that a letter notifying Yiannopoulos of the verification revocation (cited in the tweet below) is real.
This isn't Twitter's first battle with a member of the populist right-wing media. It banned the journalist Chuck Johnson last May for rules violations.
"They're using a tool for establishing the identity of prominent people as an ideological weapon," Yiannopoulos wrote in an email. "Any one of you could be next -- you know how the Left loves to turn on its allies!"
It is unclear which rule (or rules) Yiannopoulos violated, and Twitter will not provide any additional detail on which infractions led to his verification removal.
Social platforms are corporations, and aren't bound by the First Amendment. But their decisions matter since much of the political discussion that once took place in the open web is now occurring within their walls. And discussions that do take place outside social platforms still often rely on social for distribution. Limiting someone's ability to message on Twitter therefore has real impact. Johnson, for instance, has essentially vanished from the political conversation since he was banned.
Facebook has dealt with similar issues. Donald Trump, for instance, recently made statements that appear to be in violation of the company's hate speech policies, yet Trump remains active on the platform.
"When we review reports of content that may violate our policies, we take context into consideration," a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News at the time. "That context can include the value of political discourse."
The lack of specificity from Twitter prompted a wave of criticism under the hashtag #jesuismilo (a reference to French journalists who lost more than a blue check mark) and a pointed Tweetstorm from investor Jason Calacanis.
Hubbard, the Twitter commerce executive, suggested this exchange might have prompted the company's move:
Of course, Twitter verification badges simply make you a member of a large, modestly exclusive club. The badge's removal has given Yiannopoulos a different kind of status.
"If Twitter wanted to delegitimise or marginalise me this was EXACTLY the wrong thing to do," he wrote in an email. "They probably thought it would be less of a drama than banning me for my terrible, off-reservation, how-can-a-gay-guy-possibly-say-this opinions. Actually, I've had nearly 5,000 new followers in a day, I've got speaking requests coming out of my ears and I'm turning into a free speech martyr despite not really losing anything. Free speech is something that all but the most strident cultural authoritarians can get behind, which is why comedians, journalists etc from across the spectrum are lining up to complain about it."
Yiannopoulos has also been critical of BuzzFeed News, and of a recent article that cast him as a central figure in a dark new internet counterculture. In one recent stunt, he changed his biography to describe himself as BuzzFeed's "social justice editor." He was subsequently briefly suspended from Twitter, and returned with that description removed from his bio. But a Twitter official said the removal of the verification badge is not connected to that incident.
Additional reporting by Joseph Bernstein