Anyway, Ricky has been booted, just as Milo Yiannopolous was booted. The moves echo a general move by conversation platforms to crack down on alt-right harassment - Reddit's banning of the "gas the kikes" subreddit and 4chan's crackdown on GamerGate are other examples.
Obviously this has upset the alt-right a great deal (though with those guys it's hard to tell). The bannings of Ricky and Milo have been met with frantic cries for Twitter and other platforms to uphold "free speech." Many on the left respond that "freedom of speech" only applies to the government, and that private companies can and should do as they please. (This is an interesting reversal of the traditional position, which saw conservatives take a more libertarian stance. It reflects how our culture's dominant values are in the process of switching from traditionalist to modernist.)
In the old days, the liberals would easily win this argument. Newspapers and other traditional media platforms don't just censor, they also edit. They present a very carefully curated set of voices - letters to the editor, op-eds, and articles. No one would argue that the New York Times has a moral obligation to publish op-eds or letters saying "Gas the kikes". The presumption has always been that if you didn't like what the Times was serving up, you could go read a different newspaper, or start your own. In fact, many many people did exactly that. As long as the government didn't send its jack-booted thugs to shut down your paper, freedom of speech was upheld.
However, new media technologies have changed the game. Should our ideal of "freedom of speech" be different in the age of Twitter and Reddit than in the age of the New York Times and the New York Post?
Some say yes. Scott Alexander brings up the important point that many tech platforms are natural monopolies. This applies especially to Twitter and Facebook (though not as much to Reddit). There's only one Twitter, and there's only one Facebook, for a reason - each of these things has a strong global network effect. That's not true of newspapers. Scott sums the dilemma up nicely:
So instead of “let a thousand nations bloom”, it ended up more like “let five or six big nations bloom that we can never get rid of”.
This argument says Twitter is really more like a public space than a private one. If there can only be one Twitter, then does the company have a moral responsibility to protect unrestricted speech on its platform, above and beyond the responsibility of the New York Times?
I'm naturally sympathetic to this argument. I've always thought that hardcore libertarians take a much too limited view of what constitutes "liberty." Not all power is government power, so local entities like companies do have a moral responsibility to uphold liberty in addition to the government.
BUT, that's not the end of the story. Remember that in the real world, different freedoms conflict with each other. My freedom to speak my mind on a street corner is compromised if 5 people stand in my face screeching at me at the top of their lungs. But face-screeching is also a form of speech, so if you ban it, those 5 people are having their freedom of speech curbed.
Traditionally, we usually came down against the face-screechers, with laws against public harassment. Why? I think it's because we recognized that speech that disseminates ideas is more valuable than speech whose purpose is to intimidate others. When forced to choose between two mutually exclusive types of speech, we usually chose to protect the one we deemed less intrinsically harmful to others.
Twitter, as a technology, is unusually conducive to face-screeching. The first reason is that anyone can talk to anyone else. In the real physical world, a mob will find it hard to find you; on Twitter, they always know right where you are. People don't need to get up in your face; they're already there, all the time.
The second reason is that it's very easy to coordinate mobs on Twitter. In the real world, to create a mob, you have to get a bunch of people out of their houses and across town, and you can only recruit the mob from people nearby, and the cops might disperse you while you're forming. On Twitter all you need to create a mob is a hashtag or a call-to-arms by a well-followed leader - the mob forms instantly and can't be dispersed. The sheer volume of harassment on Twitter comes from the fact that there are roving mobs of harassers who spend all day going from target to target. One minute you're talking to your friends and colleagues, the next minute there are a hundred pseudonymous accounts screeching at you. Two hours later they're screeching at someone else, but now you know, if you say the wrong thing, the mob will be back in a heartbeat.
If you're a really unlucky high-profile person like Leslie Jones (who committed the unpardonable sin of being a black woman and being alive), you become a perennial target, and the mob never goes away until you quit Twitter.
So Twitter, by the nature of its technology, facilitates the kind of speech whose main purpose is the shutting down of other people's speech. It automatically empowers a very small number of harassers - I'm guessing the Twitter Nazis' total population, for example, to be only a couple thousand or so - to intimidate and silence enormous numbers of people who only wanted to say their ideas out loud (or, in Jones' case, just wanted to be there, period).
Twitter knows it has these problems - user growth has flatlined and a number of high-profile users are leaving - and it is finally starting to address them. Human moderation and banning is obviously their first approach. Future strategies might include algorithmic blocking, which Google is already working hard on. But it's possible none of these will work, and the screechers will simply always overpower the non-screechers. That could lead to Twitter becoming a ghost-town, inhabited only by 4chan types, unable to make much money off of advertising. It might be that a technology like Twitter, fun and useful as it is, might not be something that works out in the long run.
But more broadly, internet technologies are forcing us to face a sharper conflict between freedom of idea-expression and freedom of targeted disapproval. The tradeoff faced by Twitter is just an acute version of the tradeoffs faced by Facebook, Google, and any other communication technology with a global network effect. The nature of "speech" changes with the advent of new technology, and our intuitive notion of "freedom of speech" will eventually have to change along with it.
So what do I think about the banning of Milo, Ricky, and other prominent alt-righters? I'm not at all upset about it. I think it's arbitrary and unfair, and unlikely to bring an end to harassment. But I also think it's probably inevitable. Technologically, banning and corporate censorship seem to be the only way (so far) to create an online world where people who mainly value freedom of idea-expression can coexist with people who mainly value the freedom to yell mean things at other people. That's probably going to lead to a "two-tiered" internet, as Scott Alexander calls it - a "top layer" where everyone plays nice, and a "bottom layer" where genocide jokes and death threats are the order of the day. But maybe that's the only possible long-term equilibrium.