Thursday, 1 August 2013

On saying what you mean. Part one

I promised an argument today and I think I have been doing too much arts and not enough social sciences during this EXTREME BLOGGING MARATHON. I am now going to partly deliver on that promise. Today's blog is going to be the first of a two-parter on "Adrienne gets extremely worked up about language use!" I'm afraid this part of the two-parter is about the Twitter Thing again. I'm as sorry as you are about that. The Twitter Thing has been blogged about enough, but here we are again.

The Twitter Thing (and I have now seen several other people refer to it as The Twitter Thing so I'm glad I'm not the only one who can't figure out anything else good to call it) is still a Thing. A pretty big thing, which has made international news and is going to lead to a government inquiry with the bosses of Twitter UK. The legal question here is how much responsibility Twitter has for its uploaded content, and because 1) this is not the main point of my writing, 2) I have no good legal insights on this and 3) this isn't an academic essay so nobody is going to call me out for hedging, I am going to say the answer to this question is "some".

There have been calls for Twitter to require real addresses during sign-up, which is disturbingly similar to Sina Weibo's (government mandated) requirement for a real ID number to be attached to people's accounts. Generally speaking, if you think a thing you think is a good idea for protecting progressive thought in civil society ‒ because allowing women to have a violence-free platform for speech is still a progressive idea, god help us all ‒ it does not help your argument if said thing is already law in China. There are some good green policies worth copying and their poverty reduction track record is impressive (and let's not get started on how much we all love their resources for infrastructure aid model), but civil freedoms? Not so much.

The China in Africa reference above was utterly tenuous but when should anybody need an excuse for a China-Africa solidarity propaganda poster?

But this is unlikely to happen, and given how many other governments Twitter gives its data to (sucks to be you, one thousand monitored US citizens!) there is probably nothing extra to worry about anyway. The most likely outcome here seems to be this:  Twitter will increase its report abuse functions. The government will repeat what I said above about Twitter having "some" responsibility, except in Policese not English. A significant number of men who were sending abuse simply because it was easy will find a new hobby, whilst a few very persistent abusers who create constant new accounts and spend enormous portions of their lives being abusive will have trouble will get a call from the police. The morons in the middle of this spectrum, who actively believe it is worthwhile to put women in their place but don't do it so regularly that it flags up serious attention, will keep making empty accounts with lots of letters and numbers in the name and sending their little gems of wisdom to whoever they choose. Abuse will be lessened but it will not go away just as a result of this. The effects themselves depend on how serious Twitter is about employing real, sensitivity-educated people to sit at the other end of its "report abuse" button and figure out what is and isn't abuse. I am sceptical about this.

Notice the language in the paragraph above. The men who are doing these things (and yes I assume it is just men, sorry not sorry) are "abusers". They threaten violence or attempt emotional manipulation in order to change people's behaviour, because they believe that their control is under threat or because they just like exerting power. As I mentioned at the end of Saturday's post, however, the word that's being used most to describe this behaviour isn't "abuser". It's "troll". And no matter how much I want to ignore this and focus on the argument at hand, every time I read arguments about trolls I cringe involuntarily.

This is not what we mean when we talk about rape threats on Twitter. There is a huge difference between "derailing a discussion" and "coming into a discussion and graphically threatening to murder someone for being in that discussion", and trolls are on the right side of that line. Trolling is the internet equivalent of a little kid asking "why" to every single thing a parent says, then triumphantly assuming the argument is won when the parent resorts to "because I said so!". Trolls regularly do use sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist language but usually just in tired stereotype, because they know that tired stereotype is most irritating to targets. Hence the endless calls for sandwiches. Trolling is immature, annoying and morally bereft, and it does have emotional impacts which trolls themselves tend to get defensive about, because at the end of the day they honestly do think they are just having fun. On a systematic level, they contribute to some shitty power structures, but individually? They are just iterations of Scumbag Steve.

Fucking hell, That GUY. This guy. Scumbag Steve. What a guy.
For those who are not familiar with this part of the internet, Steve is one of an ever-expanding series of advice animal memes, where stock images are overlaid with different captions which all play to a particular character. There's socially awkward penguin, foul bachelor frog, courage wolf (and my personal favourite, insanity wolf), good guy greg, philosoraptor... really just google any of those and you'll get the idea. A good advice animal meme is one where the character's behaviour is immediately recognisable to viewers as "oh this is me!" or "this is someone I know". Scumbag Steve is specifically the arsehole in one's friendship group who ruins parties, "borrows" (steals) all your stuff and is generally socially inept in a way that is infuriating but never quite bad enough to not hang around with him any more.

So perhaps what we need is a "tiring sexist troll" meme, to make it easy to test what is trolling and what is abuse. For any given comment, try writing it in 36pt Impact on top of a picture of a middle-aged man in a fedora (sorry, innocent fedora wearers, I'm gonna borrow the stereotype feminists have of you for a minute). Is what you have produced funny to other people, in a "oh god, haha, I totally identify with that, what a tiring moron that archetype is, this meme is fun though"? If yes, the behaviour is trolling ‒ overwhelming in quantity and more emotionally affecting than it ideally should be, but in the end a product of a man's stupidity, not his (conscious) hate. If, on the other hand, the comment is "I am going to tie you up and then kill you slowly" or any one of the much more awful and creative thing which women in the spotlight receive on a daily basis, your picture will not be funny at all. This is because abuse is not funny, even to the people who write it. And this should be called abuse, and fought against as abuse.

At the end of the day, this distinction does not matter all that much. Internet terminology is relatively fluid, and the fact that a weaker term (troll) is being used in place of a stronger one (abuser) is unimportant when the actual behaviour is being made public and can be judged by all. Even the false dichotomies of "omg conventional wisdom says don't feed the trolls but I AM GOING TO" aren't particularly affected, because while losing the (usually valid) "don't feed the trolls" maxim is annoying, conventional wisdom for verbal abuse also insists that we "just ignore it", which is equally stupid and wrong. I suspect what will happen here is that "troll" will come to mean what Twitter feminists want it to mean, and the parts of the internet that want to use it as a word for irritating but not directly malicious behaviour will find something else to call it. The world will balance once more, and maybe get a little less sexist in the process.

There are times when words really, really do matter. But let's think about that tomorrow.