Twitter silence is not an answer

Drawing of Jane AustenRecently in the UK (not sure how many of my overseas readers are aware of it) there has been a major controversy about abuse of women activists on Twitter, which erupted when a feminist campaigner was targeted with threats of rape after her campaign to get a woman’s face (Jane Austen’s) on a UK banknote, as that of Elizabeth Fry, a 19th-century prison reformer, is about to disappear from them. Three others — historian Mary Beard, MP Stella Creasy and journalist Hadley Freeman — all subsequently reported that they had received either rape threats or bomb threats, and it was suggested, I believe by the Times columnist Caitlin Moran, that we all stay off Twitter last Sunday as some sort of protest because the site does not have an “abuse” button in the same way it has a “spam” button. There are two major objections to this reaction: one is that many people rely on social media, including Twitter, for any kind of social life, the other that it is a cave-in to the bullies.

I have also had a friend ask why those who are on the receiving end of abuse do not simply close down their accounts. The answer is that the people getting the abuse are in this case activists or distinguished people, and often they are targeted for being outspoken or distinguished women, and political freedom and free speech mean nothing if an organised cabal can shout us down. We are not talking about the odd taunt here, but about a volume of abuse over a period of hours, which besides the obvious distress the content causes, serves to jam their channel of communication, because they will have to scroll through all the “shut up bitch” type mentions or comments to get to the people who are trying to have a conversation with them. The same is true of spam; in the mid-1990s there was a Usenet discussion forum for sexual abuse survivors which was deluged with spam advertising sexual content or services, often of a lurid and violent nature, which made the group unreadable for recovering abuse victims whose traumatic memories could be triggered by reading that stuff. Abuse, like spam, is censorship, and in a free society none of us has the right to take someone else’s freedom of speech away from them.

There was a previous social media boycott effort in 2010, Communication Shutdown for Autism (also see earlier entry here), which encouraged non-autistic people to get off social media (with the assumption, of course, that everyone is “addicted” to it nowadays) so as to experience the isolation autistic people experience with their verbal communication problems. Of course, many actual autistic people do use social media, so that would have resulted in autistic and non-autistic people being cut off from each other if personal communciation wasn’t possible, but there are others who rely on social media to communicate with all of their friends because they are housebound or even bedbound. Yesterday I got back from seeing two of my friends in the north-east, a husband with an autistic spectrum disorder and a wife with both that and severe ME who is currently bedridden and lives in a dark room. She uses social media and forums to talk to her friends as it’s the only way, as she cannot get to them (however near or far away they are) and as most of them are far away, they cannot easily or regularly travel to see her, especially if they have the same condition. Some people with ME also simply cannot see people as having others present, and dealing with noise and conversation, makes them more ill. These people would be completely isolated without the Internet, like many elderly people are: if they are housebound, as my grandmother was, they see nobody except their spouse and any family that come to visit, but that will be a couple of hours every few days (again, depending on distance and how busy those relatives are). It’s a pretty lonely life.

The whole idea of the boycott was to pressure Twitter to “do something” about all the abuse on their system, the most prominent suggestion being an abuse button similar to their spam button. As many activists pointed out, the spam button is already used by some people as a tool to silence the views of people they disagree with, and the abuse button will be as well; it is remarkably easy to get an innocent account suspended if enough people click the spam button on it. Other suggestions included making everyone on social media use their full names, which although it’s worked to reduce inappropriate material on a religious forum I use, on a mainstream social media site would exclude people who had perfectly good reasons to be anonymous, including needing to be for their own safety; there was also the idea of charging people to use social networking sites. The problem here is that, judging by the charges made for mobile apps these days, which rarely exceed £3 (about $5), the fee is unlikely to deter abusers as they will just set up another account and pay again, while people silenced by malicious “report abuse” campaigns will be left out of pocket; if it is higher than that, a lot of people will simply be priced out, and either way it will exclude people in developing countries where the money takes longer to earn, and goes further, even for people with access to computers.

A picture of the Angel of the North, a metal sculpture of an 'angel' with long outstretched wings, on a hill with a road passing beneath it.Needless to say, I did not participate in “Trolliday” yesterday. When Communication Shutdown happened I proposed “Open Up! Day” on the same day, whereby people would actually spend time with their elderly, disabled or sick friends and that’s what I was doing that weekend (although my visit was arranged independently of that). Twitter is a lifeline for those who are isolated as well as the channel for awareness raising and activism of all kinds, and it was a ludicrous idea to expect those people to just shut up for the day and leave Twitter to the bullies. It was none of these people who came up with this idea; it was a columnist who jumped on the bandwagon, having noticed only when it was in the papers, rather than feminist magazines and websites which have been reporting on these goings-on for years, and famous women, rather than less famous activists, were being targeted for this abuse. Some of the people responsible have already been arrested, and this is how that kind of abuse should be dealt with, as threats of violence are clearly illegal, and as the article I linked makes clear, the abuse isn’t from hordes of men outraged at women for making quite reasonable demands, but from organised groups looking for “lulz”, i.e. to hurt people for fun. It’s right that the law deals with these goons who clog up the communication channels for the rest of us by filling them with masses of abusive noise. Us being silent, even for a day, isn’t an answer to them, it’s exactly what they want.

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