The problem with #TwitterSilence

On Sunday 4 August 2013, a number of Twitter users followed Times columnist Caitlin Moran‘s suggestion of a 24 hour boycott of the site, in response to a recent spate of recent media attention on abusive and harassing tweets directed at high-profile female users. The boycott was promoted with the hashtags #TwitterSilence and #Trolliday (a pun on the common misuse of the term “troll” for online abusers).

Meanwhile, many other women and men didn’t take part in the boycott, confidently and eloquently pointing out that the way to stand up to bullying is to raise your voice louder, not to be silent.

Moran is a controversial figure, who has angered many groups: reactionaries who object to her feminist views, progressives who feel she doesn’t do enough to fight other types of privilege like race and mental disability, and cynics who believe this is all just a way of advancing her own career as a columnist and author. For the record, despite her faults I actually quite like Moran, and enjoy a lot of her writing. I was particularly surprised to see her, in particular, calling for silence, rather than responding like, say, Scarlet Wilde (who has also written about this subject).

The problem I have with #TwitterSilence is that it was advertised as a way of showing solidarity. But who is it showing solidarity with, exactly? A few high profile female journalists and politicians, maybe, but certainly not the victims of more immediate misogyny: abused wives, sexually assaulted women, girls growing up in communities who teach them they’re worthless. By turning their backs on Twitter until it’s cleaned up and as free from abuse as the rest of their lives, the cosy elites aren’t fighting misogyny, they’re retreating further into their bubbles so they don’t have to.

This argument applies not just to Moran’s 24 hour boycott, but to calls for reforming Twitter generally. The recent surge started with Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist journalist who successfully campaigned to keep a woman on England’s banknotes (a result I couldn’t be happier with). To be fair to her, she didn’t take part in #TwitterSilence. But some of the things Criado-Perez has called for in response to Twitter abuse have been overly censorial, and she tends to deal with anyone making that point by equating them with rapists. She has, undoubtedly, received a large amount of vile, indefensible and criminal abuse. It’s understandable that she may have reached the point where she’s too tired and fed up to engage with even moderate free speech defenders, and prefers to just block anyone with a different opinion, however intellectually unhealthy that is. But it’s that very attitude that should serve as a warning light on her proposals.

What this whole debate is missing, while it focuses on social media attacks, is that the misogynists “on Twitter” are real people, and misogynists in real life too. People like Criado-Perez have lived their lives, so far, in a little bubble of urban, liberal niceness… which is fine, and it explains her shock at encountering violent misogynistic opinion now. Her response though seems to be a demand that people with awful opinions be silenced so that Twitter is reconstructed as part of the same cosy bubble. It doesn’t do anything to address the actual violent misogynists who are still out there, and who are probably continuing to abuse the women in their lives, at least psychologically and in many cases physically.

If cleaning up Twitter were just a neutral action which showed solidarity for a minor but just cause, I’d have sympathy. But by calling for their own spheres of interaction to be shielded from the uncomfortable awareness of the real suffering of others, Criado-Perez, Moran et al are achieving the opposite of solidarity: they’re abandoning women who are less powerful, influential and well-off as themselves, who aren’t able to escape real misogyny in their streets and their homes. I don’t think that’s a just cause at all.

The campaigners are calling for Twitter to tighten up its policy on abusive users, and streamline its moderation procedures, specifically by introducing a “report abuse” button for each message. I’m not totally opposed to changes in Twitter’s usage policies and procedures, though I don’t expect a report button will achieve what Criado-Perez wants it to. Remember that the abusers will be able to use it too. How will it distinguish @womanhater reporting @femalejourno’s tweets, from the reverse? If it uses a numerical algorithm, then it will just be a tool for those with lots of followers to use against those without. It will put more power in the hands of the already powerful, when the glory of Twitter has been the way it took the global reach of expression out of the hands of traditional media controllers. Meanwhile, creating new accounts will allow small-time abusers to continue to cause a nuisance. Anything which goes further to stop that happening, eg IP blocking, would also threaten legitimately offensive free speech campaigners like Old Holborn. End result: original problem unsolved, unrelated good things destroyed.

I’m not advocating turning a blind eye to rape threats, nor saying female journalists, etc, should put up with it on Twitter as an inevitable consequence of being a woman in the public eye. I think one of the biggest failings here has been of the police. They say they’re too stretched to police social media, but what are they doing arresting someone for an isolated incident of poppy burning (offensive, but shouldn’t be criminal – in my opinion, and that of the Crown Prosecution Service) while ignoring sustained campaigns of threats and harassment which are clearly illegal? Arrest and conviction for Twitter abusers would do a lot more to protect women.

One argument for cleaning up Twitter is that it’s a symbol, that yes we should be tackling violence against women everywhere, but at least by using social media as a place to start, we can send a powerful message that such attitudes are not acceptable in our society. I agree that the ideal result is to end misogyny everywhere, including Twitter and Facebook, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best place to start the fight. In fact, I think they’re actively the wrong place to start. Let misogynists express their opinions and thereby identify themselves online. If they cross the line into criminal activity (credible threats and patterns of harassment, which the abusers of Criado-Perez have), start in their homes with arrests, followed by their workplaces with disciplinary actions. Which is a more powerful message about what society tolerates: that the worst misogynist you know is banned from Twitter, or that he’s jobless with a criminal record for abusing women?

Employers routinely check job applicants’ social media profiles; why not let people check prospective partners’ timelines to discover their real feelings about women? If misogynistic posts are all quietly swept away that’s not possible. Unconfident women in weak positions of society need to understand it’s not OK to be treated badly by the men in their lives. When Twitter’s a nice moderated forum for sharing celebrity cat photos, will female columnists be getting as worked up about those women’s rights as they have about the importance of removing trolls from Twitter? I hope so, but doubt it.

I’m not saying I’d rather see female columnists suffer sexual violence, real or proxy, just to keep their minds focused. That’s barbaric. But human nature means that once they no longer experience misogyny on Twitter, it’ll cease to be as much of an issue for them, and their voices are louder than the bullied fiancĂ©e of a South Shields Twitter troll (a fact that a crowdsourced censoring function built into Twitter will entrench).

Also, knowing the sort of people who’d get a kick out of sending abusive tweets to a “feminazi” they’d seen on the news, discovering Twitter no longer allows it isn’t going to make them reconsider their attitudes. It’s just going to make them think it’s been taken over by the leftie feminists they blame the rest of the world’s ills on, and deepen their bitterness, and the feeling of powerlessness and alienation that fuels their resentment. (For god’s sake, please don’t take that as an apologetic for their behaviour.)

I don’t know what the answer is. But I don’t think #TwitterSilence is it. It’s over now anyway, so you can come back on Twitter to discuss it with me, @thephenocryst. I think I might have gone over 140 characters though.

Meanwhile, I urge you also to read Index on Censorship’s response to Caitlin Moran, and the Open Rights Group’s two blog posts discussing the responsibilities and failures of the police, here and here.

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