In the olden days, charlatans, snake oil salesmen, bigotted pastors and the like would stand on empty wooden boxes—literally soapboxes, and preach nonsense to passerby. From their elevated platform, they could gather crowds and sound far more impassioned and insightful than they actually were. However, if someone took that soapbox and smashed it into bits with a sledgehammer, then the charlatan would stop standing out. They would fade into the background and be drowned out by the discourse of daily life.
People still have soapboxes, though now they are mostly metaphorical. They exist as blogs or Twitter pages or Youtube channels that amass enough of a following that they can stand atop them and make their voices heard. However, sometimes the people who have these soapboxes use them nefariously—to grift or lie, but especially to spout hate. When that is the case, it is time for us to all demand that their soapbox be destroyed.
Milo Yiannopoulos was a writer for Breitbart, and there his unique ability to peddle hate was able to reach an audience that loved him for it. He amassed major followings on Twitter and was suddenly being booked on media programs. He turned his platform of hatred into celebrity status—a vicious feedback loop that would let him spew more hate. Suddenly it all fell apart for Milo. What happened? He was deplatformed. Twitter banned him for encouraging his followers to direct racist and sexist attacks against Leslie Jones. Breitbart fired him for bizarre comments vaguely supporting pedophilia. Within a year, his whole ship sank, and now he’s broke and out of the spotlight. You love to see it.
People who espouse hate speech, racism, sexism, homophobia and so forth can’t live on their own. There are not enough dedicated bigots in the world who will follow them to tiny islands of hatred when they get kicked off Reddit, Facebook, Youtube, or Twitter. Bigots and jerks want their hate speech on the same Twitter feed that they get their sports news and watch cooking videos on. When you get kicked off, people will rally around you for a while, but eventually they’ll lose the energy to go out of their way to support you. It’s why deplatforming is so effective, and long term it’s the best way to combat hate.
For example, a research program run by Data and Society looked at the effect deplatforming had on audiences and how much their audience moved with them. In an interview with Vice, Joan Donovan of Data and Society explained that, after an initial flashpoint where the deplatformed person would receive a rally of support, “the falloff is pretty significant and they don’t gain the same amplification power they had prior to the moment they were taken off these bigger platforms.” This explains why deplatformed hate speakers like Milo, Alex Jones and Leslie Loomer have been ineffective at rebuilding audiences of equal size since they were banned.
For university students, supporting deplatforming of hate is an important way to prevent people who promote hatred from showing up on campus. Universities are public institutions and are restricted in their ability to prevent people from speaking. What this means is that people like Milo often used their celebrity status to give talks and hold rallies on campuses, often to the displeasure of students who could do very little to stop them. Indeed, Milo was scheduled to speak at the University of Berkeley and was only stopped when protests against him led to property damage and a perceived threat of violence. Many of these speakers are never stopped, however, and are free to rally audiences behind messages of hatred at universities where the students run the risk of one of their followers listening to their messages and harassing them for who they are or even lashing out in a violent way.
Private corporations like Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and Reddit have no legal obligation to uphold free speech. They can set the terms of conduct and deplatform bigots as they please. With enough outrage from the average user, maybe they will. For now, they leave them on because the audience they keep engaged helps boost their ad metrics, and deplatforming sadly only occurs in extreme situations. If people like Milo were deplatformed sooner and never got the chance to build such a big audience would they be able to book gigs at universities? Basically, if you’re upset about the idea of someone who preaches hate coming and giving a talk on campus, one thing you can do is organize and demand from these companies that their soapbox be destroyed, leaving their voice to die in the wind.
Vincent Rendon can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @vincesagebrush