Does banning pro-Trump comments reclaim the internet as a safe space?

Does banning pro-Trump comments reclaim the internet as a safe space?

“It’s your fault! It’s our fault! This is the world we built. Congratulations, cheers all!”

So says ‘Muriel’, the grandmother in BBC One's dystopian political drama Years and Years, an entertaining if bleak portrayal of what the future may hold. Earlier Muriel elaborates on exactly why it’s our fault. “We didn’t complain when the checkouts became automated and we kept buying the £1 t-shirts.” Or in other words, people lost their jobs or were paid a pittance and we did nothing. The guilt of the complicit. 

So what’s this got to do with social media? Ravelry, one of the biggest knitting websites in the world (8 million+ members), has just banned its users from expressing support for President Donald Trump. They claim that doing so constitutes promoting “white supremacy”. Ravelry says they were inspired by the role-playing website who instilled a similar ban last year calling the Trump administration an “elected hate group”. 

Which raises the question, ‘Why are knitting and role-playing websites taking such a political stance?’ Cynics would argue there is no such thing as bad publicity, but try telling that to hardcore Michael Jackson fans. No, this is simply because they’ve had enough. 

Over the last few years, the level of harassment and negativity online has multiplied considerably. Why? Well, there are several theories, but here’s two to consider. Firstly, the American-based social media behemoths seem to constantly confuse ‘free speech’ with an individual’s right to vomit-up the most foul-mouthed, violent and abusive diatribe against anyone and often without any redress.

As a mild example, Matt Lucas was recently called a ‘bum bandit’ on Twitter. He complained and received the following response, ‘...there had been no violation of the Twitter rules...’. So homophobic insults are acceptable on Twitter. Got it. Whereas YouTube had been allowing paedophiles to infiltrate the comments sections of children’s videos and only responded when advertisers threatened to leave. And as for Facebook? They have a long and very confusing history of what is and isn’t acceptable. Remember when it was against the rules to post breastfeeding videos, but fine to post videos of ISIS beheading western prisoners? And who can forget their classic rule, ‘White men’ are a protected group, whereas ‘Black children’ are not?

Secondly, the current incumbent of the White House is a vocal and well-documented supporter of far-right groups and activists. If you don’t agree, remember how the president complained when Facebook banned Alex Jones (conspiracy theorist), Milo Yiannopoulos (troll) and Laura Loomer (anti-Muslim figurehead) from their platform. He’s the president who, when asked for a response to the rally in Charlottesville where far-right protestors marched with torches chanting, “The Jews will not replace us!” famously replied, “There were some very fine people on both sides”. And he’s the same president who hired Steve Bannon, Executive Chairman of the alt-right news site Breitbart, as Chief Strategist for the White House.

Combine both of these and you have people - on both sides, to be fair - who feel emboldened, even entitled to say what they like, how they like and to who they like online. And while many larger social media platforms seem reluctant to curb this type of behaviour - traffic is traffic, after all - Ravelry has had enough. This is their epiphany. The moment they realised that automated tills and £1 t-shirts do come at a cost. And it’s a cost they’re no longer willing to pay. And so they’ve banned pro-Trump comments. 

Are they making a political statement? Most definitely. Will it make a difference? Probably not, but that’s not the point. The point is we all have a choice. We can buy into the system and accept the status quo. Accept the bile, the misogyny, the homophobia, the racism and the abusive language as the price we pay in order to use these platforms for free. Or we can choose instead to frequent those platforms that are trying to make a difference. Those smaller sites that are making a stand, who are trying to stem the bile and hatred.

Has Ravelry got it right? Or have they dropped one humongous stitch? Could these be the first steps of an online revolution to reclaim the internet as a safer space? It’s not the worst thought. But if it is, who could have predicted it would all start on a website for knitters?