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: