Twitter announces ban on writer Yiannopoulos after online abuse of Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones

Actress Leslie Jones attends the Los Angeles Premiere of Ghostbusters in Hollywood on July 8, 2016.
Actress Leslie Jones attends the Los Angeles Premiere of Ghostbusters in Hollywood on July 8, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG/REUTERS) - Twitter promised to strengthen its rules and procedures in order to curb targeted abuse against users, beginning with a ban against Milo Yiannopoulos, technology editor for the conservative news website Breitbart.

Known by his Twitter handle @Nero, Yiannopoulos, 32, is accused of leading an online campaign of racial and sexual taunts against Leslie Jones, 48, who appeared in the Ghostbusters remake last week. The film and its stars have come under fire on the Internet for months after it was first revealed that the reboot of the 1984 film would feature an all-female cast.

On Monday evening, she quit using Twitter with a final message of exasperation. "I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart," she tweeted. "All this 'cause I did a movie."

Twitter has long come under criticism for not doing enough to police abusive behaviour on the often-freewheeling messaging service. Other celebrities have taken issue with abuse on the site, including actress Lena Dunham, who said last September she had hired someone to tweet on her behalf because it was no longer a "safe space" for her.

"No one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others," a Twitter spokesman said on Tuesday (July 19) in a statement.

"Over the past 48 hours in particular, we've seen an uptick in the number of accounts violating these policies and have taken enforcement actions against these accounts, ranging from warnings that also require the deletion of Tweets violating our policies to permanent suspension."

Yiannopoulos, who had more than 338,000 followers on Twitter, responded on Breitbart, saying Twitter's actions violated the right to free speech. "With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives," he said. "This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you're not welcome on Twitter."

Jones had shared some of the racist tweets targeted towards her, many of which compared her to an ape. User YellowArmedImposter wrotes: "Your Ghostbusters isn't the first to have an ape in it," which she shared with the comment: "I just don't understand."

Over several tweets, Jones, who is also a regular cast member on Saturday Night Live, also publicly pondered about what would prompt people to "spew hate".

"I used to wonder why some celebs don't have Twitter accts now I know," she wrote in one tweet. In a separate post, she added: "Twitter I understand you got free speech I get it. But there has to be some guidelines when you let spread like that."

In any case of blocking a Twitter user, the decision is subjective, after review of user reports sent to the company about abusive behaviour. Yiannopoulos' supporters are saying Twitter's actions show an anti-conservative bias, and are unearthing controversial tweets that did not get blocked.

Making Twitter safer from those who harass and make threats is one of Twitter chief exective Jack Dorsey's top priorities for the year, and he has vowed to get tougher on trolls. Now, Twitter says it will take a closer look at how it polices abusive behaviour.

"We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behaviour on Twitter. We agree," a Twitter spokesman said.

"We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it's happening and prevent repeat offenders."

Twitter would seek to reduce "the burden on the person being targeted", he said. "We'll provide more details on those changes in the coming weeks."