The easy misogyny of recent Twitter outbursts is disturbing, but…

twitter-logoPaul Mason’s disillusion with Twitter (and Facebook) is palpable. The reason? They are becoming sodden with trolls.

A CNBC documentary claimed 70% of Twitter users check their timeline within three minutes of waking up. This, in my household, would be considered slow. 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. Yet it might. Since covering the rape and death threats against prominent British women on Twitter, I’ve been consistently trolled. Trolling involves complete strangers invading your timeline, flooding it with obscenities or – even worse – supercilious instructions to change your ideas and to “respect free speech”. I’ve been treated to graphic descriptions of child rape, outrageous accusations designed to evoke disgust, plus numerous other commentaries on my appearance, professionalism, life …

My response 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. The rationale was spelled out in an online interview I did with one: “Because women are easy. They get butthurt so easy and react. If they don’t react nobody flames. It’s that simple … People target feminazi’s [sic] because they’re incredibly hypocritical and full of bullshit.”

Nice. There was a time I almost envied Twitter its blocking mechanism. Our unique card system here on Slugger which allows us to regulate poor behaviour depends on someone centrally making clear cut decisions in situations that are not always as clear cut as they first seem. On Twitter the block is instant and initiated by the user, not the owner of the mainframe.

Two things come up for  me:

  • One, this is a problem of abundance of information, and easy access to what Clay Shirky calls cognitive surplus. The problem is more acute for prominent figures than for medium or low follower Twitter users, because of the sheer scale of numbers. Their soft power comes with an equivalent soft incumberance.
  • Two, the capacity to disrupt business as usual is part of Twitter’s enduring appeal, not least to those outside the power information loop. It’s a speed dating venue where the clubbed and the unclubbable get to rub shoulders, if only for a fleeting microsecond. This open sourced nexus has killed the wires (or blogs for that matter) as the place where news breaks.

I don’t know if Twitter will take up Paul’s suggestion of crowdsourcing blacklists of ‘trolls’. But it seems to me that anything that’s blacklisted in this manner can be gamed. And anything that can be gamed will be gamed. Twitter has thus far thrived on the permissive principle, as has the broader net.

There is also the problem of understanding what trolls are, how they are motivated and function, and crucially why they have been around since the very earliest iterations of the Internet. Back in 1996, Judith Donath at MIT wrote about some of these exotic creatures:

A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling – where the rate of deception is high – many honestly naive questions may be quickly rejected as trollings. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations. Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one’s online reputation.[emphasis added]

Twitter for the most part evades many of these problems precisely because it is so large, open and dynamic. The block will keep your stream clean, if like Paul you have the time and determination to invest in it. That comes down to a searching question as to the trade off between value lost and value gained.

Donath again…

…there are stable systems of deception, where the percentage of deceivers does not overwhelm the population, and the signal remains information-bearing, however imperfectly. And there are signals that are inherently reliable: signals that are difficult, or impossible, to cheat.

The problem is that trolls are an undocumented technological glitch in any open system. They’ve been around long before Twitter, but Twitter can scale their presence up to beyond bearable.

The easy misogyny of recent Twitter outbursts is disturbing at times. They often constitute a toxic release of unrefined id or shadow into an otherwise respectable public discourse precisely because the barriers between the clubbed and the unclubbable have been removed.

For Slugger’s part, our yellow card, red card, black spot system works in part because over time we have built a stable community where norms are relatively consistent and the principle of play the ball not the man provides a simple and apolitical guide to what constitutes ‘safe’ behaviour.

It does not eliminate the problem of deception, nor tackle the  unwillingness of some to engage honestly with opponents. But it keeps the level of trolls, deceivers and rude mechanicals below the critical threshold. And, just as usefully, it has discouraged a broader slide towards “like-minded enclaves”, much bemoaned by Cass Sunstein and others.

As for Twitter, as my old Maths teacher instructed me the day I left school in 1976 “illegitimi non carborundum“, ala Mary Beard:


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  • Ní Dhuibhir

    At least the public, tangible nature of misogynist abuse online gives more people a sense of the barriers women face in seeking and maintaining public profiles, especially in roles where we do more than read an autocue. It also makes the type of harassment women encounter in any public space – ie the street – visible to the people who rarely see it (such as men who don’t do it).

    That’s the Pollyanna view, anyway – of course online abuse of any sort is a revolting reflection of the worst of human nature. The cruelty that seems to be acceptable to vast numbers of people who think themselves ‘normal’, such as distributing photos of minors with the intention of humiliating them (see Slanegirl, endless Facebook ‘exposed’ groups etc) is horrifying.

  • megatron

    “does not tackle…the willingness to engage honestly…”

    Surely this is becoming a major problem Mick – certainly the lack of any progress on this is frustrating.

    I read another site where the owner has a clear policy that he will just delete comments and ban users that are useless (eg summary opinion without evidence, no attempt to be constructive etc). The level of debate that follows is excellent.

    Obviously this requires a level of trust in the site owner but I actually think you have that here. If not who cares.

  • Mick Fealty


    I’ve seen that elsewhere, and I do thoroughly approve of the limited autocracy of blog ownership… But I also think there is value in the rules being known and the owner being voluntarily bound at least by the notion of a process that means he can be made accountable for his own or his moderators decisions…

    I agree its a problem, and I have extended our rules at times where I feel there has been some deception of that nature going on…

  • As long as a space is provided, people will abuse it.
    To Sluggers immense credit it provides a very large platform. I certainly couldnt and wouldnt do it.
    Twitter….I honestly cant understand it. I have tried repeatedly to really get involved with it and keep deleting accounts and setting them up again.
    In fairness Twitter has “followers” and there is a curious imbalance. I just looked up a few very public figures on Twitter.
    The rule of thumb seems to be that public figures are “followed” by THOUSANDS of people and yet they follow very few. Seems reasonable.
    Its entirely understandable that people are more interested in Rio Ferdinand (if I read his profile right, he has 3 million followers) than Rio is interested in others….and surely the downside of that is that he will get a degree of abuse…but probably not overly bothered.
    A person entering into public life….will get abuse. Nearly 40 years ago, I saw a minor DJ at a public event and while most people were happy enough to endure his few public words, several bad boys were throwing coins onto the floor in front of him.
    Its what bad boys did in the 1970s.
    They are no doubt grandads now.
    Abuse is par for the course for a public figure.
    Are we really that bothered that Ed Miliband gets pelted with an egg.
    If it happened to a senior citizen without a public profile….isnt it worse?

    Surely we over-estimate Twitter. It might be better if there was an account system that by default, they can engage with people without people engaging with them.
    Have a default system which assumes trolling…..and if public figures dont mind the occasional troll….thats ok, go for it.
    Civilians like myself are in a better position.
    I have 49 followers ….no doubt devoted to me….and I follow 98.
    hardly enough to offend or be offended.
    For some it must be a game….get more followers than you follow and you are a “public figure” Collect the names like autographs.
    Indeed is there any other reason that Twitter profiles show the number of followers and followed other than to show just how important an individual is…..

    Facebook…..”friends” ….the word is misused. Hundreds. Thousands. It makes no sense. People really need a crash course in what it means.
    In diminishing a word….Facebook encourages the trolls.
    Its about Heat and Kitchens.
    all of us have a thermostat at our finger tips which can cool the environment. Not enough use it.

  • uth

    #slanegirl and the Peru twins want to act the laddetts but don’t want the stick that goes with it. They want to behave like they do? Own it. They are a national joke because their behaviour is laughable, as is the mentality that would cosset them from the consequences of their behaviour.

  • CoisteBodhar

    If the young lady from Dungannon carries an Irish passport and described herself as Irish why am I reading headlines in UK broadsheets that ‘the two British girls…’?

    It irks me considerably more than it should.

  • CoisteBodhar

    Actually, please disregard my blatant side-track.

    Apologies all, I was venting on the wrong platform.

  • Kevsterino

    It seems there are bits of human nature that only show up in seemingly anonymous fora.

    I have thus far avoided all but 1 yellow card. I had it coming and it wasn’t difficult to avoid more of them. In simple ‘yank-speak’, keep your eye on the ball.

    As for trolling, I never understood those who think it is worth their time or energy.

  • oakleaf

    Liberals making women out to be weak and helpless is laughable and highly ironic.

    Many moons ago on a foreign holiday a women wanted to have sex with my friend but he turned her down on the grounds she was drunk. She had sex with another fella instead.

    I felt huge sympathy for the girl untill the usual angry privileged feminists hijacked it to peddle their own tired agenda.

  • Kevsterino

    Interesting handle, oakleaf. Did you know that is the name of the hero in the old depression era children’s play “The Revolt of the Beavers”?

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    I agree with the sentiment oakleaf – the cloying sanctimony is all a bit much, as if it’s perfectly normal or morally acceptable to perform oral sex in front of thousands of people in 21st century Ireland.

    And if you think otherwise, well then, you’re a Catholic bigot or a woman-hater according to the “I am Slane girl” types.

    That said, I think there’s more to come on this story. I get the impression that the teenager involved was non compos mentis. Criminal charges are likely to follow.

  • uth

    More detail has emerged, a 3rd man, and video footage. Her real name, parents, home address etc. is also all over the web.

    As for the mental state, how easy would it be to admit the truth to concerned parents; that they were merely indulging their sexual appetites? But you never know, they could’ve been victims, being terrorized by a Colombian drug gang hiding in a portaloo.

  • Ní Dhuibhir

    What’s morally wrong with indulging our sexual appetites? Cruelty is the only moral failing in this scenario.

  • uth

    I personally don’t see any moral wrong in having sex, what most pundits seem to be clinging to is the idea that the four of them were violating public space and ideas of ‘decency’. Since nobody seems to have complained about it at the time I don’t think that dog hunts. Theres a lot of grief about the damage to the womans reputation but women enjoy sex, even in public. Society has to reconcile itself to the fact that its not really their business what consenting adults get up too. I feel it would be a shame if all concerned give in to peer/family pressure to disown perfectly normal self-expression of their sexuality. If it were two gay men the matter would rightly focus on their civil rights rather than supposed moral wrongs.