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Arise, Twitterati!

We need radical collective action to save the social media platform from trolls. Paul Mason writes.

india Updated: Aug 23, 2013 00:19 IST

Which do I leave first: Facebook or Twitter? Twitter is essential for work, while Facebook — increasingly burdened by adverts, security issues and intellectual property disputes — is not.

But I am now watching Twitter become morally depopulated and seriously considering how long I’ll be on there. On the best estimate, Twitter’s account numbers are still going strong, at 500 million plus. But many of the heavily followed celebs, journalists, businesspeople and politicians are starting to censor out the minutiae of their lives in favour of more serious content.

Above all, some high-profile women have to engage in defence of their online space against rape threats, death threats and the much more insidious problem of trolling.

Among journalists, Twitter has replaced ‘the wires’: all you have to do is follow someone you know is at the frontline of a particular story and you have not just eyewitness reports but usually corroboration, or adjustment, within seconds.

So it will be a disaster if Twitter becomes dysfunctional. Trolling involves complete strangers invading your timeline, flooding it with obscenities or supercilious instructions to change your ideas and to ‘respect free speech’. My response to trolling has been to go on a blocking spree so aggressive my thumbs are sore. And it has worked for a single reason: I am male. Twitter trolls — Internet trolls in general — overwhelmingly target women.

There is, in general, a rise in the organised trolling of political opponents on Twitter. Bahraini democracy activists have been on the receiving end since the uprising began. When I was covering the police crackdown on protests in Istanbul, I noticed a marked increase in abusive tweets mentioning me, from a small group of always anonymous, pro-government tweeters. But anti-female trolling has a different intent. The woman-hating troll posts random, sick and offensive comments to an audience of just one, and that is you – ‘bitch’.

Twitter, which has revenues next year of $1bn predicated on the sale of advertising, knows there is a chance that part of its user base could suddenly migrate, sick of the sexism and misuse. The co-founder of the popular social media site Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, in March decried levels of sexism and abuse on the service where, among the under-30s, men outnumber women three to one. So sexist abuse is becoming a profit-and-loss issue for social media companies.

The solution has to be radical and collective, for the stakes are high. Twitter is the first mass, global conversation, and if it becomes fatally polluted by frat-boy perversity and the verbal spew of sociopaths it will take some time to rebuild elsewhere. Policing it comprehensively is impossible.

But in the end, only the users can save it. It looks as if that will involve shared, user-created lists of accounts to block. DIY versions of these exist, but if Twitter were to bolt on the facility to its own user interface it would make things easier. If it did, relatively quickly Twitter would divide effectively into a community that tolerates abuse, and one that doesn’t.

Levels of rage would rise among those who get their kicks from trolling. But the result would resemble the ‘Last Judgment’ scene in the Sistine Chapel; a division of online humanity into the saved and damned — only crowdsourced, rather than as the result of divine intervention.

That would be apposite. For the sudden eruption of trolling, rape threats and 24-hour psychosis into my timeline has been a reminder that evil exists in the world. Evil may be a medieval theological concept, but when it invades your interface with the rest of humanity it is all too modern. The first step to dispelling it is realising we do not have to act alone.

The Guardian

First Published: Aug 22, 2013 23:49 IST