It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and the Facebook commenters want me to go fuck myself.
They’re riled up because Milo Yiannopoulos, conservative demagogue and alt-right ringleader, had just posted a screengrab of an email I had sent to him to inquire about whether or not he’d received an invitation to the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards. In a phone call, a representative for MTV had categorically denied that the network had invited Yiannopoulos to what is arguably the music industry’s most progressive fête, which led me to the man himself — the same man who believes that trans people have a “psychiatric disorder,” feminism is a cancer and consent during sex is “oppressive” — to see who had coughed up their plus-one.
But how he actually did acquire a ticket, I still don’t know, because Yiannopoulos summarily replied “Fuck off” to my email. Then he posted the whole exchange to his Facebook page, with my full name and email on display, strung up with incendiary language like chum for sharks.
Milo hadn’t called for blood outright, but the angry mob showed up anyway.
The sound you hear when you kick the hornet’s nest in Milo-land is an angry crescendo of bees in Fred Perry polos, crawling out of their social media hives to sling vague insults about “fake news” alongside more personal and venomous darts about your intellect, your body and your career.
Yiannopoulos has 2.3 million followers on Facebook, and after he posted my email, the swarm infiltrated my Twitter and Facebook inboxes, with a few stragglers burrowing their way into my Instagram comments.
A phone call with Facebook representatives yielded no action. They told me that they’re aware that Yiannopoulos has figured out a way to game the system, pulling certain levers to summon his goons without running afoul of their harassment policies. But Facebook’s guidelines, as they currently exist, are cut-and-dry: Milo might be indirectly inciting harassment, but as long as he doesn’t call for it explicitly, his speech is protected. The post is still up.
The bad news, though, is that his followers seem to be taking his lead. Beneath the screengrab of our email exchange, one commenter wrote, “His minions are emailing her at this very moment, detailing how they’re going to rape her.”
Is alluding to my rape the same thing as calling for it outright? Free-speech guidelines are tricky like that.
The bottom line: Though internet trolls are evolving, Facebook’s harassment protections are not.
“What he’s managed to do is stand right on that line.”
Facebook’s “community standards” as they pertain to harassment are clear: The site permits users to “speak freely on matters and people of public interest, but [will] remove content that appears to purposefully target private individuals with the intention of degrading or shaming them.”
For public figures, like journalists, the rules are slightly different: Facebook allows for “open and critical discussion” of people with a “large public audience based on their profession or chosen activities.”
“However, we draw the line at credible threats and hate speech directed at public figures,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a phone interview with Mic. “We want Facebook to be a space where both expression and personal safety are protected and respected.”
But for people like Yiannopoulos and his followers, flouting the rules is easy, so long as they stay within the lines.
“What he’s managed to do is stand right on that line, where it’s understood that when he speaks, violence — either physical or symbolic — is going to result from it,” Whitney Phillips, a communication lecturer and digital media folklorist at Humboldt State University in California, said in a phone interview. “If you’re not the person saying ‘I want you to attack this person,’ you’re kind of protected at the legal level.”
Phillips said the danger is particularly acute for female journalists — women of color and transgender women especially — who would seek to draw attention to the harassment they’re subjected to by reporting on it.
The danger is particularly acute for female journalists — women of color and transgender women especially.
“Best-case scenario — and I’m saying this in scare quotes — somebody gets harassed, there’s a huge public outcry and then Facebook intervenes,” Phillips said. “But in order for that public outcry to be reached, the story has to be amplified much larger than it would have been otherwise, and that results in more abuse.”
So if speaking out against abuse only begets more abuse, then what the hell is anybody supposed to do?
When the alt-right is bad for business
In 2016, after Yiannopoulos’ followers waged a hate campaign against Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones, Twitter finally opted to permanently suspend his account.
More recently, web-hosting company GoDaddy opted to part ways with neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer in the wake of the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Shortly afterward, the Stormer was also given the boot by Google Domains, which blasted the site for violating its terms of service in a statement to the Washington Post.
In both instances, the companies involved faced intense public backlash for allowing hate speech to exist within their spheres of influence, which may or may not have prompted them to take action. Facebook, too, has responded in kind to some of the loudest criticisms it faces by taking action, including ameliorating an old policy banning photos of breastfeeding mothers and adjusting its restrictions on using so-called “real names” to better accommodate transgender people and victims of domestic violence.
But even with the recent strides the site has made in offering users a more welcoming social media experience, Facebook continues to come under heavy fire for its shortcomings on protecting users from harassment.
“In some ways, you kind of have to rely on the marketplace to correct itself,” Phillips said. “Where the capitalist concern for the bottom line, in many cases with issues of harassment, that’s what prompts a response.”
As long as capitalism is in charge, the historically marginalized groups hurt most by Facebook’s slipshod harassment protections should expect to continue bear the burden of a failing system.