Over the past week, infamous internet far-right provocateur, onetime friend of Steve Bannon, and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos sent threatening messages to multiple reporters, according to Davis Richardson of the New York Observer. “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight,” Yiannopoulos texted Richardson when asked for comment on a story about a restaurant Yiannopoulos frequents.
Yiannopoulos sent the same message to the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer in an email, which Sommer included in a story he published Tuesday about how Yiannopoulos is joining forces with far-right YouTube personalities to attempt a “soft coup” of the conservative party. Under a screenshot of the story posted to his Instagram account, Yiannopoulos added the caption, “where is the lie,” confirming, and in a sense even bragging, that he told Sommer he was excited for journalists to get gunned down by vigilante shooters.
That Instagram post received more than 7,000 likes, according to a screenshot tweeted by BuzzFeed reporter Joe Bernstein, who shared the image Wednesday, before news broke Thursday afternoon that a gunman—in what appears to be a completely unrelated event—visited the offices of the Capital Gazette, the daily newspaper chain that covers Annapolis, Maryland, and killed at least five people; several others were seriously injured. The shooter was reportedly male, acting alone, and is now in police custody. There is no current connection known between Yiannopoulos’ quote and Instagram post and the tragedy in Annapolis.
Yiannopoulos has more than 348,000 Instagram followers and a verified account. Bernstein noted in his Wednesday-afternoon tweet that although Yiannopoulos’ threatening post was reported to Instagram, the Facebook-owned social media photo-sharing site decided that the post didn’t violate its community guidelines. The person who reported Yiannopoulos’ photo shared a screenshot of Instagram’s decision not to remove it. The screenshot shows that more than 19 hours after the post went up, Instagram said they were keeping it up.
According to Instagram’s community guidelines, hate speech may be allowed when it’s “being shared to challenge it or to raise awareness,” but the company has explicit policies against “serious threats of harm to public and personal safety.” Nevertheless, Instagram offers some leeway if the post is coming from someone with a strong following. “We do generally allow stronger conversation around people who are featured in the news or have a large public audience due to their profession or chosen activities,” the guidelines read. It’s not clear whether the Yiannopoulos post wasn’t considered to be a serious threat or if it was read as an expression of his professional persona, or whether Instagram had some other reason for deciding to let it stay up. But whatever Instagram’s rationale was for not taking the post down, it’s hard not to read the photo and caption as an incitement to violence. Bernstein later tweeted that a representative from Instagram later told him that the decision not to take the post down was a mistake and that it had been removed.
Social media websites provide a platform for people with controversial, and sometimes violent, views to reach large audiences without needing to rely on the popular press. That dynamic can be a very good thing, offering people who may have important perspectives and stories the opportunity to be heard. But if the companies that own these platforms don’t also take care to properly uphold community safety standards and quickly ferret out bad behavior, people with a hateful agenda can use their tools to promote harm—or even violence. And that’s why it’s important for these powerful companies to take action and respond to reports of dangerous activity, even when a journalist doesn’t call them out.
Venmo, the PayPal-owned peer-to-peer money-sharing service, kicked Yiannopoulos off its services on Thursday, according to multiple reports, after he used the platform to send Talia Lavin—a former fact checker at the New Yorker—$14.88. Lavin is Jewish, and “14/88” is a common neo-Nazi and white-nationalist reference.