No-platforming on Twitter can work – and Baked Alaska proves it

Once a superstar of the alt-right, Tim Gionet has faded into oblivion.

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When Alex Jones and InfoWars, the famed conspiracy theorist and his news outlet, were banned from a number of social media platforms (not including Twitter) last week, there was widespread outrage from the right-wing, free-speech movement. “What the fuck happened to freedom of speech?!” one Twitter user tweeted, “I don’t give a shit if you don’t agree with Alex Jones’ beliefs or views. This is a real problem.” “A dangerous precedent is being set.  Our right to Free Speech is being eroded because some people don't like it,” wrote another.

The no-platforming debate – ie banning certain people or outlets who proclaim racist, misogynistic, homophobic or other hateful views from digital spaces – has been raging on for the better half of the last decade. The arguments against taking a platform away from these people are based around freedom of speech, arguing that anyone should be allowed to say anything they like. But in the last few years a strain of free-speechers has emerged, ones who argue that, although they vehemently disagree with these hateful philosophies, they feel the only way to make these people’s opinions obsolete is by allowing them to share their views, and then proving that they’re wrong through debate. Essentially, meaning that no-platforming people who share hateful ideas will always fail to remove those people and those views from the mainstream. Jones and InfoWars have reignited this particular argument.

However, a look at some of the major alt-right figures who have either been stripped of their verification on Twitter or who have been banned from the platform altogether shows that no-platforming can actually work – and that these alt-right characters can, relatively speaking, fade into oblivion.

The best example of this is Tim Gionet, better known by his social media username “Baked Alaska”.

Gionet got his start working at the BuzzFeed on its social media strategy, where he says he was radicalised by the “PC culture” he was exposed to there. After leaving the publication, he worked as the manager for right-wing shock-jock Milo Yiannopoulos on his 2016 university tour around the United States in the lead up to the US presidential election. Around the same time he also began working with Pizzagate-myth creator Mike Cernovich and began to grow an enormous Twitter following. Through this, he helped to spread the now infamous Pepe the Frog meme, which became synonymous with the alt-right movement. His influence on the American right even granted him special access to the 2016 Republican National Convention, the exclusive event where the presidential nominee is chosen. By the time the 2016 campaign was over, and Trump’s place as the incoming president was secured, Gionet, under his nom de guerre Baked Alaska, had become one of the internet’s biggest alt-right stars, with the added bonus of strong ties to the White House.

Then, at the start of 2017, his fame truly exploded. He was an organiser of the “DeploraBall”, the unofficial inauguration party for Donald Trump (which Gionet was ultimately banned from attending for posting anti-Semitic messages on Twitter) in January. He accrued tens of thousands of followers on YouTube, hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, and national notoriety in the United States. He was a keynote speaker at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally last August, which attracted white supremacists, and ended in violence after a car ploughed into a counter-protestor. 

But in November 2017, things changed. Gionet was spontaneously banned from Twitter for reasons that were not specifically disclosed. However, the social media platform did point reporters in the direction of its Hateful Content Policy, specifically the section that talks about banning users who post “repeated and/or or non-consensual slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes, or other content that degrades someone”.

At this point, you might have expected Gionet to resurface on another platform, with his followers regrouping behind him. But as it turned out, this was the nail in his coffin.

Immediately after his banning, searches for Gionet’s name drastically dropped, despite 18-months of growth thanks to Pepe, Trump, and Charlottesville. His YouTube channel, despite his best efforts, failed to take off – at least when compared to the level of his alt-right counterparts (such as Alex Jones himself.) He was even banned from live-streaming on the video hosting site for hate speech. And, worst of all for Gionet, news outlets stopped writing about him. That was, aside from occasionally checking-in to mock him for how badly his career post-Twitter banning was going.

The truth was that, after being no-platformed by Twitter, Baked Alaska became irrelevant. And not just irrelevant in the mainstream, but an increasingly irrelevant voice even in the niches of political discourse.

Nor is Gionet an isolated case. Milo Yiannopoulos, although admittedly more famous than Baked Alaska ever was, is undeniably a diminished figure since being removed from Twitter on 15 November 2017. There’s been little news about him since his now infamous editor’s notes were published slamming his then cancelled book back at the end of 2017, aside from being mobbed out of a bar back in April. Similar things have happened to white nationalist Richard Spencer, who was famously punched in the head at Trump’s inauguration. Although Spencer is still on Twitter, he had his verification stripped, and has since been disowned by mainstream news sources as well as his alt-right counterparts.

Despite these cases though, it seems unlikely that InfoWars will be removed from Twitter. In a series of tweets regarding InfoWars, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the conspiracy theory generating outlet would not be banned because it had not violated any of Twitter’s rules (begging many users to query whether or not Twitter’s rules are fit for purpose.) But to argue that, even though you think his views are harmful, Jones won’t go away if he is banned from social media, is far from what the evidence suggests. Even the simplest of measures, such as removing a blue tick, can make a world of difference. And as we’ve seen in the case of Baked Alaska, sometimes the way to deal with an internationally famous alt-right supertroll is simply to ban them. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.