Ungagged asked me to expand a bit on a recent twitter thread on social media abuse and I’m happy to do so. I emphasise these are just my personal views but I hope they are helpful. I have made all the mistakes over the years so you don’t have to.
I have been on twitter since 2010. I’ve seen it get bigger and uglier and been through various stages of trying to handle abuse from challenging it, to RTing it, to blocking it and finally muting it. For me, muting it is the best solution. I’ll tell you why.
Challenging it is pointless. Someone abusing you on twitter knows they’re being horrible so there’s no point in telling them that, they want to upset you and make you angry. If you challenge them they will only get worse. The same goes for RTing abuse. I know people sometimes do this to highlight it, but this simply invites other users to join in and participate in a nasty squalid fight that will just leave you drained and depressed.
Blocking people can also make them worse, I’ve had people set up new accounts so they can continue to have a go at me because I blocked them. I do block people in some circumstances but I find muting people is much better at just getting rid of them from my timeline and mentions.
I’ve muted many hundreds of people and twitter is much better for that. I have muted people on the No side and I have muted people on the Yes side. In my opinion a lot of nonsense is talked about the relationship between political positioning and social media abuse. The fact is you get toxic people across the board. Twitter gives you the option to mute them, so use that option. Mute them, forget about them. If they really cross the line, block and report them. And remember – on your twitter you decide what the line is.
If someone threatens you or another person don’t hesitate to go to the police. It may not result in action being taken there and then but you are still providing intelligence which may enable action to be taken at a future point if the perpetrator is following a pattern of behaviour.
I have also thought about my own use of twitter. Quote-tweeting is something I do less and less now due to the way it can instigate pile-ons if you have an above-average number of followers. I realised I was guilty of that after I quote-tweeted what I thought was a particularly silly comment from a political journalist, poking fun at him. My tweet wasn’t malicious or intended to be. I was just taking the piss. But a lot of the replies to my tweet copied in the journalist, were quite abusive and it just went on and on and on.
Coincidentally there was a recent discussion on twitter about why a well-known unionist blogger had been blocked by a large number of SNP MPs. I had blocked this chap myself after he RTd me, leading to a stream of nasties in my mentions. (If you want to stop someone being able to RT you directly, you need to block them).
Probably the blogger didn’t intend to set the flying monkeys on me – any more than I had intended to set them on the journalist – but just didn’t really think about it before quote-tweeting something he saw as silly. We all need to learn that lesson. If you instigate pile-ons, either wittingly or unwittingly, people are entitled to block you. And, for the avoidance of doubt, MPs are people.
I also have to mention twitter clyping in this context – this describes the situation where someone tweets a comment about another person and a different user replies @ing that person in. If the original tweeter wanted to @ the person into their tweet they would have done so. Don’t do it for them because it can result in a confrontation they don’t want.
Inevitably we come to the vexed subject of misogyny. There has been a great deal written about the level of sexual abuse and threats sent to women so I won’t add too much to it. It’s ugly stuff. And the more high-profile a woman is, the worse it gets.
Some may think that high-profile twitter targets never actually have to read the abuse directed at them but they (or people around them) do have to, because they need to assess if they contain any credible threats. The recent Westminster Hall debate which allowed women MPs to talk about the horrific abuse they received was, I hope, an eye opener for some. And, as in life, it’s worse if you are a black woman, a lesbian, a Jew, because misogynists are so often bigots too.
Plus, for all women, twitter tends to have the same double standards as you get in real life – men are assertive, women are aggressive, men are confident, women are arrogant, men are witty, women are silly and childish. And be careful about telling jokes – some men really don’t like it!
So why do I stay on this hellsite? Well, for one thing I rather enjoy being silly and childish on twitter. Twitter at its best is joyous, I have had so many good laughs over the years. For another, I have genuinely made some good pals who I would miss if I left – and that applies to people on both sides of the constitutional divide. So I’m sticking around with my mute button at the ready. Otherwise I’d have to go back to facebook and that would be a fate worse than death.
I was really proud of this podcast this week. When our collective found out that two pensioners, Brian Quail and Angela Zelter, had been jailed for protesting at the nuclear weapon storage and dispatch facility at Coulport here in Scotland, we decided to do something that an online collective can. We wrote a letter to the two prisoners for peace. And we asked people to sign it. The response in the short time frame was phenomenal. People from across the political world asked to sign. You can find the letter here.
Then, the day after we sent the letter, the Trident two were released. We are over the moon!
Their act, described by Brian as “infinitesimally small” was an act that touched thousands of people across Scotland and indeed the world. I was shocked after my friend Kevin Gibney at Independence Livestream asked me to do an impromptu interview in their studio about the case that on checking as soon as we came off air, 17000 people had tuned in and watched me stammer and stutter what information I could give to people. 17000 people in a few minutes either found out about, or were reminded about, Brian and Angela, and I know they wont mind me saying, the infinitesimally bigger issue of nuclear weapons themselves.
And that made me think. I am an advocate of the left using the internet in ways that forward our cause and the issues we agree with. I wrote an article for Red Pepper a good few years ago about, at the time, how leaders on the left really didn’t take the internet seriously enough. Although in the last ten years that has changed, especially as younger people find themselves as part of the leaderships of these organisations; younger people who are cyber-natives; I feel the internet and its power is still thought of with suspicion by lots of campaigning lefties and organisations. The left, for the most part, is represented by individuals. And this is a pity. For many reasons… not least the fact that a huge amount of people find a political narrative from events and issues nowadays on social media.
And without really informed people getting properly involved, either as collectives using central accounts, for example a shared facebook page or group, or a shared twitter account, then we allow this space to be taken over by reactionaries who can divert good people from the truth.
I say this just after reading one of the weirdest twitter timelines I’ve seen for a while.
Twitter, for many years, was seen as dominated by the left. Narratives surrounding political events and issues were mostly left wing narratives when you checked into twitter. This wasn’t a coordinated narrative… it was mostly just left wing people posting links and commentary on these issues. This, of course, was not balanced. But it meant that the left could challenge the dominance of the right in the main stream media and through the rights dominance on facebook etc.
This is changing; and the timeline I just read sums up this change. I am not going to name any of the twitter accounts I read the series of tweets on – nor am I going to directly quote – I really don’t want the twitter account to get any publicity. The account has a blue tick beside it, and it is the account of a good looking young man. The fact that he was retweeted by a left wing twitter account had my alarm bells ringing.
So the narrative of this timeline went like this. He has a pinned tweet that states, basically, that he no longer believes in some of the things that are resurfacing from his past. He doesn’t believe – any longer – in naziism. He doesn’t believe any longer in holocaust denial. He doesn’t believe any longer in racist opinions he used to held about inferior races and he ends this with a quote from the bible about casting the first stone.
Now – as I said he is a young guy. And I am so relieved that twitter – or any social media – didn’t exist through my teenage years and early twenties as I am sure there would be plenty to cast up about me. But holocaust denial? Racism? Naziism? Lets give him the benefit of the doubt that he really does regret those views. When I look back, I think of my own – continuing – education I understand with the perspective of time, that there is always new knowledge, different sides to a story and sometimes hidden narratives in everything I read, hear or see. This is why the teaching of a love for history; analysing texts and the media etc is hugely important. And always understanding that what we know is never the whole story.
So, I looked at the tweet my left wing friend had rt’d. It was of the young man, who describes himself as a journalist, being escorted from “reporting” at a port in Sicily. Now, the tweet seemed to be about freedom of speech. Journalists should always be allowed to go about their business without hampering. At present the narrative on the harassment and the hampering of journalists seems to belong to Donald Trump, but press freedom can of course be hampered here in the uk by D notices and confiscation of source material etc. And those things have happened in recent years when wikileaks have released material to newspapes like the guardian and others. And as revealed by Seamus Milne over te years, in northern Ireland and during the miners strike. Thatcher hated a free press.
But, I thought, is this guy who he says he is? I was suspicious because of his pinned tweet and then seeing that his being allegedly censored, was not really censorship. He was there to harangue those who work on ships and NGOs who had rescued immigrants and refugees. He had been harassing people portside and was asked to leave. In fact the port authorities feared for the safety of the refugees and immigrants and workers on board the ship and kept them there until he was removed. A further investigation of his timeline shows that far from ditching his racist views, he still holds them. And it is peppered with tweets and RTs from other right wing sources on rapes and violence allegedly carried out by immigrants.
Now, I was able to process this all in around two minutes. I knew what to look for, I know what is unreasonable, and I know what is dressed up racism and indeed neo-fascism. But my friend on twitter, who could have seen the tweet, read it quickly, agreed that the press should not be in any way hindered, RT’d it to show solidarity. And this fascist view, like that of Mail journalist Kati Hopkins, is read by more followers and his awful narrative of keeping refugees from refuge, is perpetuated.
See how it works?
What do we do? Do we ignore this? Do we allow the right wing to take over?
Another narrative I saw today regarding the new right wing surge on twitter was the absolutely reasonable debate and discussion that is going on about the abuse and threats public figures suffer online. The racist, violent and vile abuse, for example, Diane Abbott receives – especially when she was ill during the last general election – was beyond the pale. But, and here is the rub, Simon Hart, a tory MP, who I don’t doubt has suffered uncalled for abuse, blamed it on wait for it, unions and Momentum in particular. Then on the same BBC magazine programme, a Liberal Democrat MP blamed it on the Yes campaign in Scotland. And just to kick that ball right into the park… a Labour mp came on to also blame Momentum and some of the left.
Now here’s the thing. I don’t doubt these people have had abuse. I too have had online abuse. But this abuse originates from the left and the independence movement in Scotland? Really? Did they ask Katie Hopkins and John Mcternan to write their scripts today?
I don’t usually quote Stu Campbell, who is well known up here in Scotland as Wings over Scotland, I find his social media presence abrasive and it negates a lot of the good stuff he does in many ways, but he is taking the Scottish Labour leader to court over alleged defamation of character after a remark she made about him -she called him homophobic. People I respect have taken up his cause. And I don’t doubt he was defamed – I don’t follow him, or read his stuff very often, so don’t know all of the ins and outs.
He says on his site,
“For the last six years, the supporters of independence have been relentlessly abused, smeared and vilified by the Unionist parties and the media. We’ve been called Nazis, bullies, terrorists, fascists, Stalinists, thugs, viruses, racists, human sewers and just about every other slur under the sun. The most innocuous remarks have been blown up into shock-horror hysteria, and on the occasions when there haven’t even been any innocuous remarks they’ve simply been invented.”
And in these sentences, I agree with him. The dreadful onslaught of the mainstream media against the Yes campaign was horrendous (one newspaper even presented us as swastika wielding thugs – the only swastika wielding thugs I saw during and after the independence campaign were right wing unionists parading in George Square – and on the Friday night after the referendum, seig heiling and beating up people on the streets of Glasgow). The narrative of the history of the Yes campaign is still being attacked and slandered and dragged over the coals by the Tory and Tory-hugging No campaign. Project fear continues to attack what was, from what I witnessed and took part in, a peaceful, positive celebration of difference and equality. In all my campaigning days I have not taken part in anything more positive. But the narrative is being hijacked. And eroded.
Stu Campbell may be someone some of us don’t like. I’ve never met him, and to be honest, lots of his misdemeanours have been ones reported to me. When I was the online person for a political party, we ensured our team steered away, just in case. But in those sentences he wrote that I’ve quoted, and at least in the spirit of his case (because I don’t know the ins and outs of it) I support him. Defamation is a serious thing, and I watch with interest. He is one individual, supported by funding, who is at least, challenging a narrative. But is he challenging abuse? Abuse that more often than not is misogynist, homophobic and racist abuse?
As for Momentum, well, I have friends in Momentum. Wonderful, thoughtful, hopeful fighters for equality. None of my friends tweet nasty threats to Tories. They disagree wholeheartedly with the Conservative ideology, and yes, sometimes post strong tweets about Tory policy and its supporters, but abuse? In the way that the house of commons politicos abuse each other? In the way the Mail journalist Katie Hopkins abuses? In the way Kelvin Mackenzie abused a city and families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster? In the way the Dowlers were abused by the press, Chris Jeffries? Rebecca Leighton? Sara Payne?
The right wing by far, control the narrative of the main stream media. In my opinion there is a concerted campaign to own the narrative on twitter and social media. Social media has been the bane of the right in the past few years after all.
Independence livestream understand that. Some groups understand that, but are in danger of being made to look as if they are poisonous when they launch legitimate campaigns. And Ungagged understand that. That’s why our podcast is one that is an across the left podcast – one that has podcasters from across the left who don’t always agree. Not agreeing is a positive thing. It’s where we learn from each other. And there lies the fear of older generation left leaders. Previous left groups had to have the discipline of a party. Some groups adopted a democratic centrist approach, where no one spoke out of turn outside the group. That way of organising no longer works. Why? Because we are all throwing huge amounts of data out there that is analysed and recored on servers across the world. And if you control your narrative so strongly that in the massive online conversation is drowned, well, you are invisible. You need to be there. You need to be discussing or arguing or debating, in order to be relevant nowadays. That is just a fact.
Holding a party line nowadays just silences a party. The left is complex. As complex as the right. The right don’t need a party line – they just have one goal – to make more profits. All else in and around the right – the thugs, the nationalism etc, are just ways to perpetuate that central tenet… that want to create more wealth for the already rich.
The left have a bigger goal – to change the world to ensure everyone has an equal share and equal access to the things this world has that enhance life. Everything else – from the organisation structures, through to the meetings about meetings – all are there to help the left to this goal. To me, Jeremy Corbyn and the corbynistas, and Nicola Sturgeon and the sturgeonettes have the same ultimate goal. As do the leaders of the smaller left parties and groups. I don’t agree with everything Corbyn and those around him say, nor do I agree with everything Sturgeon and those around her says. I don’t agree with everything the SSP say, or the Greens or Syriza – But I’ll listen to them. I know they are on the same journey as I am.
And that’s the ground I feel we must be walking on. Yes, disagreeing and debating. But always knowing it is a difference of opinion that could in the future disappear. Always knowing that the defeat of greed and intolerance is our aim.
So, do I defend Stu Campbell in the way I defend Brian Quail and Angela Zelter? Yes. Do we need to challenge the right wing people standing threateningly at quayside waiting to abuse refugees? Yes. Do we challenge people who are sexist, misogynist racist transphobic online? Yes. But lets do it together. Lets ensure we are in affinity groups that can help each other when we are attacked by online thugs. And lets use platforms created by people like Kevin Gibney at independence live stream to highlight injustices. And please, get in touch or give us a few pounds via paypal if you want to help develop Ungagged as a place we can safely debate, disagree, agree, (and listen to music!) and fight for a fair world.
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.
The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.