This article is taken from our recently released 6th print issue: The Spectacle, available to buy from our website here.
I went viral once. In 2015, I wrote a thread (a sequence of connected tweets) in which I explained contemporary vocabulary using ‘your mum does the washing’ as a unifying analogy. It’s funnier than it sounds. The 61-tweet satirical thread garnered between seven hundred and three thousand retweets/likes per tweet. I went from three thousand followers to close to seven in a month, although a good number left when they realised my timeline wasn’t Mum Jokes On Tap. One betrayed twitterer took the time to inform me that he was unfollowing because I was ‘an unfunny, perpetually triggered SJW,’ (SJW = Social Justice Warrior, go-to shorthand designation for sensitive liberals favoured by the online right. See also: ‘snowflake’). I found this odd given how if you’d read my tweets, you’d know I haven’t yet seen a tree that I did not want to hug.
Prior to this exercise in mass disappointment for hopeful lovers of mum jokes, most of the threads I’d written were related to the online ‘movement’/perpetually recycled diaper that was Gamergate. If you do not know what gamergate is: TL;DR it’s the dumbest thing ever, or the reason why Trump got elected, or why geek culture is simply the worst. During that time I interacted with far more keyboard neo-nazis than any black person should ever be forced to endure. Gamergate burnt me out to the point that now I rarely if ever engage in Serious Twitter Debates. Nope, I will no longer be exchanging goods in the marketplace of ideas. From here on out, it is output only: here be my thoughts on some issue of the day, attempts to engage will get you sarcasm and further attempts will get you blocked. I’ve decided Twitter is like great sex with an ex, except she yells the N-Word just as she orgasms and ruins everything.
No one needs me to state the importance of Twitter in contemporary political discourse. The current President of the United States is at any given point no more than one hundred and forty characters away from starting World War III. And though not every user mashes their keyboard with that degree of apocalyptic power, Twitter creates the theoretical possibility for anyone to be as consequential as journalists, politicians and world leaders. Not only has Twitter upended the way we consume news, it lets you become the news. Its biggest strength has always been this egalitarian approach to voices. Yes, the chances of anyone seeing your dumb tweet about Zayn Malik vary depending on how many followers you have and how engaged they are with your material. But theoretically, that dumb tweet can still be seen by anyone, anywhere.
If you’re really offended by what Kanye thinks about Amber Rose, you can reply directly to Kanye’s account. And if he’s angry enough that day, he’ll say something back directly to you. And then you’re having a conversation with Kanye, and if you’re witty enough, your responses get screencapped and boom, you’re part of the news. You can just as easily speak to world leaders, politicians and journalists – or at the very least, their public profile – so long as they are on the platform.
You can start or be part of a hashtag that could end up trending, informing policy or nearly starting a movement, like the #arabspring, #blacklivesmatter, #bringbackourgirls or #showyourgoddamntaxestrump (that last one is aspirational). You can join many of the subcultures that exist on Twitter – black twitter, or weird twitter, for example – with their own set of memes and slang that sometimes end up seeping into the mainstream. You can easily find like-minded folk to bond and organise with. Many Black Lives Matter activists gained nationwide prominence because of the networking possibilities and reach that Twitter afforded them.
These are all wonderful features that make up that orgasmic twitter experience I mentioned before. The problem is the N-Word bit, and the N-Word bit is a very loud and very rude bit at the moment.
The thing about everyone having a voice is: so do fascists. And you cannot have a conversation with fascists any more than you can have a conversation with a Westboro Baptist member. You can’t debate someone whose fundamental starting position is, ‘I’m better than you. Oh, and you should be dead, preferably in a gas chamber.’ Twitter has a major fascist/cyberbullying problem and it is damaging any and every reasonable attempt at discourse, because fascists will fascism your mentions with a sealion (the act of jumping into a discussion with endless questions and demands for evidence, a passive aggressive derailing tactic designed to wear you down) or gaslighting manoeuvres (a form of manipulation whereby consistent misdirection, denial and lying sow seeds of doubt in the target). And fascists know their opinions are, to put it lightly, fucking rubbish, so they pull out every trick in the book to make their numbers seem bigger than they actually are. They obfuscate and troll, and when that doesn’t work, they attempt to silence their opponents. And when you have only one hundred and forty characters to make a nuanced, contextualized point that requires readers to take your arguments in good faith and respond appropriately, bad actors have a lot more stage to play with.
Twitter has given fascists a playground. It is super easy to create an account, and you can have as many accounts as you want. I have three, one of which is an official account for my band, another of which I use to tweet about how wrong it is that Scarlett Johansson is playing a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell, which isn’t exactly on brand for an electronic R&B account.
Twitter is flooded with bot accounts that can schedule up to 1000 tweets a day to drown out dissenting opinions; in 2014 Twitter estimated that 23 million active profiles were bots, and during the US election, pro-Trump bots outnumbered pro-Hillary bots seven to one. Anonymous accounts are created specifically to harass women and in particular women of color. In 2014, fake accounts were created using photos of black women from Google Images as profile pictures, posting outlandish and often aggressive tweets in an attempt to discredit the black feminist movement. Many of these fake accounts were ousted, and the hashtag #yourslipisshowing from @sassycrass was used to call out their tactics. Oftentimes, several brand new accounts are created to ‘dog-pile’; a target is chosen and s/he is flooded with responses, ranging from the mundane to gendered and sexual threats, until it becomes impossible to engage in meaningful dialogue or the target is so stressed they log out. These tactics were employed at length during Gamergate to threaten female game critics, some of whom quit twitter completely. You can block trolls, but it is way too easy for a troll to just sign out to circumvent the block and access the account’s content. Many a racist coordinates their campaigns on forums such as Reddit, 4chan and Breitbart comment pages before launching on twitter.
Activists have pleaded with Twitter to put in place effective blocking, moderation, support and banning procedures in order to catch, reprimand and, where necessary, punish the worst and repeat offenders. Twitter’s response was to verify Nazis – like Richard Spencer, who got a blue tick and punched in the face, only one of which he deserved. Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey have dragged their feet, and in doing so have given the impression that fascism and cyberbullying is acceptable. It took the harassment of high profile user Leslie Jones to get noted cyberbully/nazi sympathizer/Breitbart hack/Tori Amos plagiarist Milo Yiannopoulos banned from Twitter. Yet there are still hundreds of other desperate men out there who have made a cottage industry out of peddling Hitler memes and harassing women, one of whom is currently in the White House. And that’s not even considering Twitter’s other problems, like the way major marketers and hucksters will steal content from black entrepreneurs and pass it off as their own.
The solution is obvious; banning the fascists would be a good start, creating better privacy tools is another, maybe make it a tad more difficult to make multiple accounts. Go after bots, fake accounts and disable any scheduling tweet automation apps. Twitter took a step forward with the option to mute conversation threads, but unless bigger changes are made, Twitter will never reach the potential it has to become a platform for real, welcoming political engagement while it continues to allow hate speech to roam free. We cannot divorce the online from real life; treating fascism as a legitimate opinion worthy of debate has real world consequences (see: Europe 1933–1945).
Public service announcement: As it stands, I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to engage in meaningful discussions with fascists on Twitter. Nah mate. Go for jokes and sarcasm, and don’t feed the trolls.