(Photo by Flickr user Planka.nu)
In the last few years, abuse on Twitter, much of it directed at women, has become a big deal. High profile cases involving obsessive and vile harassment of people like British historian Mary Beard, feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, and the Canadian media critic Anita Sarkeesian, have brought the issue to wider attention.
What few people appreciated at the time of those controversies was the scale of the problem. A committed troll – and many are pretty damned committed – can generate hundreds or thousands of accounts over many months. Blocking them individually became a game of whack-a-mole – for every account you knock down, one more springs up to pick up the slack. It was for that reason that British atheist James Billingham created the Block Bot, a tool that enabled a community of users to rapidly detect and neutralise abusive accounts, adding them to a crowd-sourced block list.
It seemed like a good idea at the time (though some criticism seems eerily prescient today). Newsnight picked up the story, and some even suggested that Twitter should adopt the technology itself. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Caroline Criado-Perez is on the block list. Helen Lewis, a journalist and editor, has done more than most to highlight the abuse of women online – she too is on the block list. And – as of this week – so am I. What the fuck is happening?
Trying to find the reason for my block was like negotiating a sort of weird, passive-aggressive minefield. The site provides a Twitter account, “@TrollOrNot”, which you can tweet a user name at to find out if they’re a troll. I asked if I was a troll. The account responded with "lel", which a teenager told me means "lol", and a link to Carly Simon’s 1972 hit, "You’re So Vain", described by Wikipedia as a “critical profile of a self-absorbed lover”.
Clearly some sort of message was being conveyed here. If only I could figure out what it was.
— Is a Troll or Not? (@TrollOrNot) August 6, 2014
Eventually I was engaged on the matter by Billingham himself, @oolon to his followers, who informed me that I’d been blocked for “trivialising a serious discussion”. He also pointed me to a Storify account maintained by the bot’s handlers, in which abusive tweets resulting in blocks were recorded. Finally, I could see what all the fuss was about!
Apparently my first crime was being racist in December last year. I have literally no memory of this, and the link attached is broken. My racism was apparently reviewed by other editors and found to be non-existent, since I wasn’t blocked, but still the accusation remains on my permanent Block Bot record, which is mildly defamatory in a sort of lovably harmless way.
Still, I was on borrowed time. People were watching. My card was marked. What finally got me blocked was this tweet:
— Martin Robbins (@mjrobbins) August 4, 2014
Now, I’m prepared to accept that this isn’t the funniest joke in the world. I was in a café in Dymchurch having some breakfast. The waitress handed me a can of coke with "sis" on it. "Sis" sounds a bit like "cis", as in cisgender. And if that’s not instantly hilarious to you, maybe a detailed explanation of the context to the joke will help. I find jokes often work best when they have to be explained at length.
"Cis" is an academic term describing, in the words of Zoe Robinson, “a person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth”. Trans activists have adopted it as a label for non-trans people as a framework on which to hang ideas like cis-privilege, described pretty well in Zoe’s post. Some other feminists rail against it, on the basis that gender is a cultural construct, and they reject the assumption that they’re comfortable with the gender roles assigned to them based on their biology at birth. Personally, I’m sympathetic to both positions, and if you’re interested, it’s well worth reading more.
Unfortunately, that whole discussion has been wrapped up in the ongoing drama between radical feminists and transgender activists. You can read some useful summaries of that whole clusterfuck by Michelle Goldberg (some, incuding Jos Truitt at the Columbia Journalism Review, have suggested her piece is biased, but it’s a useful overview of the issues at stake), and by Juliet Jacques, who adds a lot more context from the trans activist viewpoint. The upshot of it is that, online at least, the debate has polarised so severely that you’re basically either stomping over the fundamental rights of all women, or you’re an evil bigoted "TERF".
The "cis" can tweet I posted – and I imagine you’re pissing your pants laughing at its sheer hilarity after that two-paragraph explanation – was regarded as anti-trans. I have literally no clue whatsoever how you could come to that conclusion, but there you go. It’s a joke that was supposed to operate on two levels. It’s a self-mocking comment on how daft it is to be that worked up about being called "cis", and it’s a comment on the general tendency of people arguing in claustrophobic and heated online bubbles to read context into things that aren’t really there. Inevitably, people on Twitter proved my point. “Wow you really are a giant turd aren’t you? Go fuck yourself you transphobic shit,” quipped one wag.
And so I was gone, in a racist blaze of transphobic glory. Another troll slain.
Then there’s the case of Caroline Criado-Perez. She led a campaign that petitioned Twitter to introduce a "report abuse" button after receiving a barrage of abuse and rape threats. Last year, Billingham battled and blocked trolls from Anonymous who were attacking the feminist activist. A year later, Criado-Perez is on the block list herself.
The Storify documenting her "abusive" tweets is incoherent – a collection of angry people shouting "TERF", but nothing from the woman herself that you could identify as abusive, or any kind of –ist or –phobic . Her crime seems to be rejecting the label "cis", and responding mildly tersely to a woman screaming “STOP TALKING ABOUT INTERSECTIONALITY FOREVER.”
The same is true for Helen Lewis, an editor who regularly commissions trans people, and publishes a range of feminist discourse at New Statesman that far exceeds pretty much any other major publication. The Storify record for her block – a level 2 block, no less – shows a tweet in which she objects to people using phrases like “kill TERFs” or “burn TERFS”, and another in which she tweets a link to a New Statesman article about intersectionality.
Of course, objecting to the burning of women who disagree with you is very much against the philosophy of the site’s founder, and this is where things become problematic. In one tweet, Billingham posts screen captures of threats made against "TERFs". “Burn TERFs” one reads. Another asks “whats (sic) better than 1 dead terf? 2 dead terfs. “Works quite well,” the white male tweeter declares, “and is no ‘threat’ FFS.”
And so the block bot has gone full circle. What started as a reaction to sad white men abusing and harassing women to try to drive them off the internet has turned into, well, this. You may not agree with these women, you may think they’re bigots, but this kind of shit is crossing a line by the standards of any decent human being, and the contempt shown for civil discourse is pretty shocking.
Of course none of this really matters. I don’t have any objection to people using the block button, and indeed I block hundreds of people myself. If people don’t like what I say, they’re welcome to shut me off, and if people are rude towards me I tend to do the same. The impact of the Block Bot is so small as to be insignificant, and I’ve lost no followers as a result of this.
Still, it’s a perfect case study in just how badly this kind of technology can go wrong if you put it in the wrong hands. The Block Bot started as a tool to create a safe space for women online, and turned into a weapon to bully and silence women the community disagreed with. Had Twitter implemented a similar system on a larger scale, the results could have been catastrophic.
Previously: Relax, UK – We're Not All Going to Die of Ebola
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