I don’t always mind if people invoke the C word when referring to an instance in which a major social media or search platform bans a particular person from posting to it. Yes, Facebook or Twitter banning a user does not meet the technical definition of censorship given that they aren’t government entities and, as private corporations, are under no obligation to host anyone’s speech. But with some of the largest internet platforms — companies like Facebook and Google — wielding near-monopolistic influence in their respective industries, it’s not difficult to imagine troubling scenarios in which that influence is used to suppress speech. Last year, Metafilter founder Matt Haughey detailed the devastating impact that came when Google harshly punished his website within its index; his web traffic was eviscerated, resulting in him having to lay off staff members in order to stay afloat. It’s likely that a domain banning on Facebook would have a similarly calamitous effect on a news site. It’s possible to construct an argument, then, that these large social platforms should be more circumspect in banning users than, say, the New York Times is when deciding whether to ban commenters.
That being said, there are plenty of instances in which a social platform is not only justified in banning a user, but under moral obligation to do so. If we’ve learned nothing else from the GamerGate controversy that swept the web last year, it’s that open platforms like Twitter can be used to quickly form mass pseudonymous hordes who then lob death threats at targeted users, usually women. We’ve been treated to horrific screen grabs of Twitter users promising the most violent, misogynistic acts imaginable, often alongside the victim’s home address. This has led to calls for Twitter to improve its abuse prevention methods, methods that even Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admits are inadequate.
This brings us to Chuck Johnson, the conservative “journalist” whose Twitter account was permanently banned today. For the uninitiated, Johnson wrote for several prominent conservative news outlets before striking out on his own and launching Gotnews.com. Since then, he’s spewed some of the most misogynistic, homophobic, and racist vile imaginable, often under the guise of journalism. Within mere hours of the Amtrak train derailment that tragically killed eight passengers this month, Johnson, with virtually no actual information as to the circumstances of the crash, took to Twitter to claim that the engineer steering the train was black and that the derailment was a direct result of his affirmative action hiring. When it later emerged that the engineer was actually white, with nary an apology he shifted his attack, claiming that the engineer’s homosexuality made him predisposed to mental illness and then suggesting that was the cause.
Of course being hateful and wrong, by itself, may not justify a permanent ban, but Johnson’s behavior went beyond merely marginalizing minorities. His “investigations” are often organized witch hunts that expose victims, many of whom aren’t public figures, to threats of violence. He has a predilection for declaring rape victims as liars and then offering bounties for identifying information, which he then publishes. After falsely claiming that two New York Times reporters had published the address of police officer Darren Wilson, Johnson then published the home addresses of those two reporters. The resulting death threats drove them from their homes. In the wake of the deeply flawed Rolling Stone reporting on campus rape at the University of Virginia, Johnson published the full name and other identifying information of Jackie, the potential rape victim at the center of the story. He then followed up that “reporting” by publishing a photo of Jackie, which then turned out to be a photo of a completely different rape victim, one who was then exposed to online harassment.
If you define “terrorism” broadly as using the threat of physical violence to silence particular kinds of speech, then it’s not hyperbolic to conclude that Chuck Johnson and his GamerGate brethren are terrorists. Their threats are clear: If you, a minority, use your voice to expose instances in which you’ve been marginalized, then we will threaten your privacy and cause you to live in fear for your safety. For that reason, Twitter is under no obligation to host and be a party to Chuck Johnson’s hate speech. In fact, it’s obligated not to.