For misogyny on Twitter, silence is easy – and not very helpful

The continued existence of misogyny in the twenty first century is morally repugnant, and the debate over abuse on Twitter reminds us that misogyny can take many guises and subsist in many different contexts. Yet today’s ‘#TwitterSilence’ – a day-long boycott of Twitter led by prominent female newspaper columnists – is undercut by a misunderstanding of the technological and social environment within which this abuse takes place.

The boycott started, appropriately enough, with a tweet. Writer Caitlin Moran, herself the subject of copious threats of violence, tweeted to her followers

we could all leave on August 4th … and Tweet the holding message ‘Waiting for a troll solution.’

Judging by the healthy number of retweets this message received, the idea appears to have taken hold, and indeed the top trend right now, around midday on Sunday 4th August is ‘#twittersilence’.

Conscientious readers will already have noticed the contradiction. How is this hashtag so popular right now if the legions of users who support the idea are ostensibly not using the service today?

This inconsistency strikes at the root of the problem with ironic aplomb. It highlights, quite pointedly, the confusion between medium and message which has characterised many responses to online abuse. To go back to basics for a moment: anyone can, in principle, use Twitter to say anything, just as anyone can use a telephone to say the same thing. Just as is the case offline, of course, certain constraints – some legal, some social –  restrict the spectrum of speech that can be freely aired.

Yet it’s the functional differences between Twitter and other forms of communication that create the conditions both for particularly nasty abuse and for the heavy-handed and ill-conceived #twittersilence response.

Essentially, the Twitter platform fuses elements of a social network with aspects of a news medium. Whereas in the ‘old days’ of the Internet, its remarkable information and communication functions were largely used separately (search engines for information and email for communication, typically), the rise of Twitter and other ‘Web 2.0’ tools create a much more integrated interplay between, if you will, facts and feelings.

The biggest winners from this development are those who are able to straddle both sides. Traditional thought leaders, news professionals and celebrities of all stripes have reaped the rewards of having thousands of followers, just by signing up, their reputation preceding them. Twitter allows these people a great deal of immersive exposure to their views and, of course, to their work.

Saying that this exposure comes at the cost of threats and abuse is not the same as saying that this cost is not too high. But it is crucially important in approaching this issue to remember that the particularly pointed (and needless to say deranged) abuse which has attracted all the headlines is targeted specifically at a relatively small group of women in the public eye. This is no coincidence, but rather a peculiarly distinct and context-specific phenomenon, and indeed only one particular form of misogyny on Twitter.

To bastardise Monty Python, the people hurling abuse at prominent women are pariahs, but they’re also very naughty boys. Platforms like Twitter have suddenly given free rein and free access for the channelling of very specific, very tailored abuse created by malicious individuals who see the opportunity for a quick, sick thrill magnified by the very prominence of their victims.

The Twitter network is highly skewed by the popularity of a small cadre of very popular users and a long tail of users with a single- or double-digit follow count. Twitter’s retweet and mention functions are the technical equivalent of Lyra Belacqua’s subtle knife, in theory offering the ability for obscure users to hop up the network graph in a flash. It may be these functions which encourage the attention-seeking impulses which lie behind the vile threats and epithets.

Given these underlying dynamics, the #twittersilence campaign feels like a less than optimal response. Surrendering the entire medium on which not only awful abuse but also a great deal more (in both quantity and quality) of positive, constructive, meaningful interaction and information-sharing takes place feels a bit like going on hunger strike because of the horsemeat scandal. It’s also, as Suzanne Moore admits, “as protests go about as easy as it gets”, which doesn’t sound like something Emily Davison would take as a compliment

The heavy-handed-broad-brush strategy of boycotting Twitter epitomises many of the less-informed responses to the ‘uncanny valley’ of similar but distinctive challenges that the Internet presents us with. Twitter can and should do what is possible to protect all its users from abuse, and the arrest of a suspect will hopefully send a signal that social networks are not vacuums for the vile. Yet backing away from the whole platform is not the right response. Everyone offended by the persistence of misogyny in all walks of life should continue to tweet, not vote with their feet.

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