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August 8, 2013 / playforth

Pushing the button

Warning: this is a long and boring post about asshattery on Twitter and probably doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been said already, and better.

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from Twitter. This isn’t directly related to what might euphemistically be called ‘recent events’, but it has given me a chance to step back and examine my own thoughts and feelings about those events, as well as to work out what I’d miss about Twitter if I left for good*.

Some of my thoughts are:

  1. These are not trolls, and speaking out is not feeding them. Trolls may aim to shock, to disturb, to piss people off, to get a reaction, to just generally annoy the rest of the internet. What is happening on Twitter doesn’t feel like trolling to me, but straightforward, targeted, violent abuse. Given this troubling fact, it’s a pity that ‘How should we react to rape threats?’ ever became more of a story than ‘People are making rape threats?? WTF??’ Discussion (perfectly valid) about whether Twitter needs a ‘report abuse’ button or not, and whether a boycott was a good idea or not, has distracted from the problem itself, which is that a lot of people apparently consider it okay to threaten women with sexual violence and death, and to generally bully and harass individuals who express a view. This is NOT okay. What we do about it is a massive and complicated and necessary discussion, but we should be agreeing on this first: THREATENING TO RAPE SOMEONE IS NOT OKAY.
  2. Media coverage has not helped. Reports typically begin ‘A group of women…’ and continue either ‘have received threats on Twitter’ or ‘are staging a Twitter boycott’ or ‘have started a petition’. This is not about ‘a group of women’. It’s about individuals, and it’s about everyone. Everyone’s world is made a little bit worse by this kind of abuse – framing it as about ‘a group of women’ minimises the problem, confines it, and gives us permission to switch off. I would quite like to hear a news report that began ‘A group of men have been ABSOLUTE DICKS today…’
  3. In other words, we should focus our attentions on the perpetrators. I strongly agree that social websites should enforce their own rules consistently and have clear policies and definitions around acceptable content. Twitter does have a role to play in addressing the environmental factors that allow the abuse to happen, but it’s not entirely to blame. The internet has enabled new crimes and antisocial and disruptive behaviours (including piracy, cyber-bullying and anonymous trolling) but it doesn’t cause people to engage in them. If misogyny is on Twitter, then that’s because it’s in our culture, and that’s what needs to change. (Telling the misogynists’ mums and grans and sisters what they’re up to can’t hurt either.)
  4. There are open online spaces, and there are safe ones. Having one involves trading off a certain amount of the other. I use a few private message boards and heavily moderated forums where I’m (fairly) confident I won’t be trolled or abused, but none of them can give me what Twitter can: the opportunity to hear, and be heard by, anyone. Connecting with strangers is a risk, online as well as ‘IRL’ (and online life is real life). Open spaces are scary. We can make them better by enforcing the law and the rules of the space, but there also needs to be a strong social contract, and that’s not something you can create by installing a button.
  5. Oh yes, the button. For me, the clue to why this is not the answer is in the name. A button is something that you can easily push, that has an immediate effect. Just what we want! we might think, but it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to see the flip side. If you make something easier to do, more people will do it. Not all of those people will be socially conscientious, deep thinking, responsible citizens, or genuine victims of abuse. Some of them will be bored and mischievous, some of them will have an axe to grind, some of them will be orchestrating a bullying campaign. The petition text demands that Twitter properly distinguishes between attack and defence when it comes to assessing reported tweets, something which seems almost impossible when you scale it up. (This post is a very clear discussion of the human resource maths involved.) And would any of us really feel confident making those distinctions, making the right call every single time?
  6. Silence is a powerful weapon. So is breaking a silence. But solidarity is the most powerful weapon of all – everyone who opposes violently misogynist abuse should (and mostly do) stand together and support each other, whatever our different methods of opposition might be. (Ie don’t let the asshat brigade divide and conquer.) I do kind of hate the reductive, celebrity-driven single issue politics endemic to social media, where a tide of kneejerk support or condemnation can be unleashed by one retweet from Stephen Fry or Caitlin Moran. But in this case, fuck it, we need to drown out the nasty little voices on Twitter with as many big booming calls for niceness (or at least the bare legal minimum of civility) as we can muster – from men and women, right and left, famous and not famous.

*The wonderful, helpful, supportive, inspiring library community. The way I can instantly find out what’s happening in my town, and meet new people at those happenings. The many many people banging on about The Archers.


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