Milo Yiannopoulos, the “alt-right” firebrand and provocateur, fell from grace far earlier than many of the political entertainers raised high by President Donald Trump’s election. He was permanently banned from Twitter in 2016, resigned from Breitbart as a senior editor in 2017 and lost his spot at the Politicon convention in 2018. His college speaking engagements, once a major engine for his career, have largely dried up. Now, in front of his much-diminished audience, he’s melting down.
“I have been betrayed and abandoned by everyone who ever called themselves my friend, with a small handful of notable exceptions … I almost single handedly ignited the current debate about free speech on campus and NO ONE has ever matched my ability to draw attention to these issues … I have lost everything standing up for the truth in America, spent all my savings, destroyed all my friendships and ruined my whole life,” Yiannopoulos wrote in a (lengthy) Facebook post.
I’ve never been entirely convinced that protest with the goal of “de-platforming” ideologues is very effective. Organization against highly public stunts, like college speaking tours, seem to primarily serve as fodder for the Fox News outrage machine. “De-platforming” has to have support from a higher level — news companies, tech companies and financial interests — to truly work. That said, Yiannopoulos’ accelerating public decline has made me reconsider, somewhat. Without sustained pressure from a general mass of progressives, would entities like Twitter and Politicon have taken action against Yiannopoulo’s in the first place?
Political celebrities provide a circuitous method of advertising. Radical websites can’t pay for ads in The New York Times, but their figureheads serve a nearly indistinguishable purpose simply by being covered. “De-platforming” Yiannopoulos, however it happens, robs his fans of a valuable resource: access to the mainstream press. Furthermore, feeling marginalized suppresses meaningful political activity; by reducing the clout of a movement’s leaders, you reduce its efficacy overall.
This isn’t a groundbreaking observation, admittedly; there’s a reason people like Trump, former State Secretary Hillary Clinton and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez draw so much sustained criticism and attention. The difference between a politician like Clinton and a media figure like Yiannopoulos, though, is institutional power — influential politicians can raise their defenses in situations where a more isolated private citizen cannot. Yiannopoulos didn’t have the institutional power necessary to preserve his status.
Was it protest, though, that collapsed Yiannopoulo’s career? Initially, his importance came from his ability to provoke direct action from supposedly deranged college liberals — in other words, protests. Now, ceteris paribus, deranged college liberals are responsible for Yiannopoulo’s decline? His departure from Breitbart and expulsion from Twitter both occurred after media scandals; if protests had continued, sustaining his reputation, I find it hard to believe that either Breitbart or the Mercer family would have reacted.
Protests signal some segment of the country — and therefore some segment of consumers — find someone’s brand so repulsive that they’re willing to show up in person and spend their time repeating their outrage. They don’t, for a provocateur like Yiannopoulos, scare away funding that’s already signed up for public stunts and drama. Some might argue violent protest, as carried out by segments of antifa, is the key; if Yiannopoulos cannot speak because of security concerns, he’s clearly being “de-platformed” (at least in one area). There remain dozens of other platforms, though (television, social media, etc.), where threats of violence are ineffective. Physically preventing someone from speaking on one campus or another does not prevent them from speaking to millions of fans online, or millions of live TV viewers.
I believe protests are an important demonstration of solidarity and a way of demonstrating the strength of one’s conviction. I’m also not shedding any tears for wildly popular, well-compensated celebrities being denied the chance to make money and headlines on college campuses, either. I am still unconvinced, however, that direct action with the goal of “de-platforming” people like Yiannopoulos is enough. Preventing someone from speaking on campus may be an independently good thing, but it doesn’t appear effective toward the larger cause of removing someone from the public stage. The journalist who publicized that clip of Yiannopoulos appearing to defend pedophilia did more damage to his career than all of the people involved in the subsequent protests, for all of their righteous intentions.
It seems likely we’ll have at least one campus controversy this academic year over a speaker on campus, and there will — and should — be protests. Organizing them with the goal of “de-platforming,” though, is to misunderstand the way political celebrities wield and grow influence. Denying someone space to speak is clearly effective, but only when that denial is far reaching and total — “de-platforming” one head of the hydra does not prevent it from growing back two more elsewhere.
Hank Minor can be reached at email@example.com.