Last Sunday saw numerous people take part in #TwitterSilence, a day-long boycott of Twitter in protest against the endemic abuse and misogyny plaguing the site. Given the rate of degradation of the service in the last couple of years, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner, and it seems like part of a wider trend over the last few years – being abused has become a daily feature of life online, and women take the brunt of it.
But is abusive behaviour really increasing, or is it just becoming more visible? In the past couple of years, my "follower" (a horrible word) count has risen by around 15,000. It’s still pretty tiny compared to high-profile recipients of abuse like Laurie Penny, Caitlin Moran, Helen Lewis or Stella Creasy – all of whom have counts measured in the tens of thousands – but even that increase has radically changed the tone of the site.
At the risk of sounding like an enormous dick, Twitter looks very, very different for people with a few hundred followers, those with thousands, and those with tens or hundreds of thousands. Many users set up dedicated accounts to seek out and target people with large followings for abuse. Even ordinary feedback can seem abusive when amplified by a crowd. Think of playground bullying, for example – there’s a massive difference between a child calling another child a dick and a hundred children standing around one child shouting, “You’re a dick!”
To be blunt, Twitter doesn’t scale. It wasn’t designed for people to make tens of thousands of connections, and I’m not entirely convinced that the humans using it were either – not without some strategy to cope with it all.
It also runs afoul of the completely fucked up relationship our society has with celebrity. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it argued that people with a decent follower account should be expected to "take it", as a sort of penalty for being popular. I have plenty of issues with Caitlin Moran’s writing, but some of her enemies – and these are enemies rather than simply opponents – treat her like the Guy on a bonfire, a convenient avatar to pour their hatred and scorn onto.
Suzanne Moore was viciously dehumanised by much the same crowd after writing an article that contained controversial remarks about the trans community. There were valid criticisms there, too, but as I smuggled her into the rear entrance of Conway Hall for a debate earlier this year, I was struck by the insanity of the escalation of abuse. I completely reject the idea that campaigners who intimidate volunteers at an unrelated event are doing anything to advance any progressive cause, and I suspect many of those they claim to represent would as well. The arguments and movements being hijacked deserve better than a supposed "ally" repeatedly shouting, “Cunt!” or “Your [sic] a dick!” at random celebrities on Twitter.
So why is this happening? People regularly blame anonymity for encouraging this sort of behaviour. It’s a tempting explanation, especially when so much of the abuse I receive personally is anonymous, but I’ve not seen much evidence to support it. Professor Tom Postmes summarised the research (via Helen Lewis), saying: “In all the research online that we know of, anonymity has never had that effect of reducing self-awareness.” Adrian Chen, who writes about trolls for Gawker, has noted that: “The biggest thing I’ve realised while reporting on trolls is that they are pretty much the same offline as online.”
Caitlin Moran, who championed Sunday's #TwitterSilence protest against misogynistic abuse on the site. (Image via)
Attention-seeking is another possibility – hence the saying, "Don’t feed the trolls" – and yet often the abuse continues even without a reaction. Skepchick sums up the problem: “The abuse will continue to come, because they don’t want attention – they are bullies. They want power over you. They want your silence, and they got it.”
There’s been surprisingly little discussion of power in all this, and a sad lack of quality research. It’s widely accepted that power dynamics play a big role in other forms of abuse. Rape has long been used as a means of control, and sexual abusers tend to be motivated more by a desire for power over any "need" for sex. Why should online abuse be any different? It’s hard not to notice a pattern in the misogyny directed at women and the overlapping rage directed at columnists like Moore or Moran. In both cases, the subtext seems to be, “I don’t like it when these people speak, so I’m going to abuse them until they stop.”
Mental health is another big, dung-spreading elephant in the room here. Over the last five years I’ve encountered several examples where people with mental health difficulties have formed online groups that seem to exacerbate their problems. A handful of psychiatrists and mental health workers have told me – anonymously, for obvious reasons – that patients have formed insular online forums, where they engage in paranoid discussion about the people treating them and share strategies to disrupt or wreck the treatment they receive.
Sometimes these groups spring up around particular conditions, syndromes or even rogue doctors. In the UK, a small minority of people suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome have been involved in of the most viciously paranoid campaigns I’ve seen, resulting in Professor Simon Wessely abandoning his research on the subject and declaring that he felt safer in his new job – in Iraq. In this environment, publishing research with unpopular findings carries a serious risk to life and limb.
It isn’t hard to find these communities online, but attempting to engage with them as an outsider is very difficult, and some display extremely disturbing levels of anger and paranoia. They behave more like cults than conventional patient groups, and in my opinion they pose a very real threat to their members. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems astonishing so little effort has been made to investigate further.
I raise these examples because we’ve fallen into an easy discourse that neatly divides victims and abusers online, calling for protections for the former and sanctions and punishments against the latter. Is it really that simple, though? I don’t want to fall into the trap of pretending that anyone who attacks me must have a mental health issue – that would be ludicrous. At the same time, I can’t ignore the feeling that some of these people need our help.
The problem with all of this is a chronic lack of data and hard evidence. It’s hard enough to even define "abuse" – especially when "trolling" is used as short-hand for basically all "undesirable" behaviour – let alone measure it. It’s hard to show that there’s anything to explain, let alone provide an explanation. And the assumption that the internet somehow makes us angrier takes us dangerously close to Susan Greenfield territory.
Perhaps we’re just seeing more of who we are. Our media tend to act as a mirror to our society, and the internet is the biggest, brightest, sharpest mirror yet invented; a mirror that renders every grey hair and wrinkle in painful detail. If we’re surprised by people’s behaviour, it could just be that we’ve never been locked in a room with so many of them before.
Martin Robbins is a writer and talker who blogs about weird and wonderful things for the Guardian and New Statesman. Here Be Dragons is a column that explores denial, conflict and mystery at the wild fringes of science and human understanding. Find him on Twitter @mjrobbins, or email tips and feedback to email@example.com.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins