Making a martyr? Free speech, social media and the alt-right

Despite the temptation to spend the summer days reading ahead for next year, often the holidays offer little alternative occupation to obsessively monitoring our social media. Nowadays a vital pillar in upholding contact with other humans, social media can be inflammatory and, since July, still reeling from what could prove to be a game-changer.

This summer, self-professed supervillain and notorious troll Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter after encouraging the abuse of Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. Why are we still talking about this? you might ask. With 338, 000 followers, Yiannopoulos’s suspension was never likely to blow over quietly; infuriated fans swiftly responded with an equally infuriating hash tag.

#FreeMilo has opened a wider debate on whether social media is prejudiced against conservatism. Yet the depiction of poor, oppressed entrepreneur Yiannopoulos can’t escape its own hypocrisy, especially when the abuse aimed at Jones made use of archaic, Darwinist rhetoric, likening her to Harambe the gorilla, historically used to legitimise the inferiority of black people.

Yet underneath its arrogance and gleeful rejection of political correctness, what makes #FreeMilo even more detestable is that it may have a point. Is it really the place of Twitter to silence someone, controversial though they may be? Controversial being, with Yiannopoulos, an understatement.

Of course it is, seems the initial knee-jerk answer. Despite the protests of his 338, 000 minions about free speech, the fact remains that Leslie Jones was abhorrently bullied because of her appearance, her race and her gender. Free speech aside, being abusive is the right of no one.

Thankfully for civilised society, Milo Yiannopoulos, who, previous to his run-in with Jones, had likened rape culture to a Harry Potter fantasy world, is something of an exception. Twitter had, after all, warned him several times prior to him being banned and so we should, in theory, be able to rest easy knowing justice has been served.

And yet the idea of a minority of invisible CEOs policing the content accessed by millions is a worrying one. Who, after all, has the authority to say what is acceptable and what isn’t? In the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, his track-record is arguably enough to count against him. But the lines aren’t always clear and the grey area in between has a dangerous potential for exclusivity in favour of those at the top.

Aside from the potential power gold mine, #FreeMilo could yet prove to be a game-changer in another way. For his followers, Yiannopoulos has become something of a martyr, battling for free speech against a hypersensitive Left. Given how he conducts most of his alt-right activism from behind the protection of a computer screen, labelling Yiannopoulos a martyr is grossly insulting. However, this kind of glorification will most likely give the alt-right more fuel to their fire. For every high-profile clanger made by Donald Trump, for instance, his supporters seem to defiantly love him more. So it is with Yiannopoulos. In a statement following his suspension, he boasted how Twitter had netted him more adoring fans. Even more disturbing, he may very well be right.

With every attempt at marginalisation, the alt-right emerges more offensive while wielding the banner of democracy. To #FreeMilo supporters, his ban appears to be marginalisation on an

institutional scale. The consequences of an electorate feeling sidelined by those in charge have already manifested in Britain. Many have ruled Brexit a protest vote, albeit one where even the so-called protestors didn’t expect to win. The effects of the growing alt-right movement on the US election remain to be seen.

In a twist of irony, the oppressed Cult of Milo could graduate to oppressors, and then we’d be in a very volatile place indeed.

The views and opinions outlined in this piece belong entirely to the author, and are not reflective of the views of the wider Editorial team, nor Concrete as a whole.


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November 2021
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