Davin O'Dwyer: Twitter faces fundamental challenges over torrent of bile

Opinion: Offensive speech raises questions about social effects of disruptive technology

Milo Yiannopoulos, who was banned from Twitter after stirring up racist and sexist abuse of actor Leslie Jones. Photograph: Sam Hodgson/The New York Times

Milo Yiannopoulos, who was banned from Twitter after stirring up racist and sexist abuse of actor Leslie Jones. Photograph: Sam Hodgson/The New York Times

 

Do you think we are  in the middle of an epidemic of obnoxiousness? Does it seem like we are being overwhelmed by vitriol?

As our discourse appears to become ever more hostile, perhaps it is time for a big question without any possible answer: is Twitter disrupting civility itself?

Last week, Milo Yiannopoulos, a reprehensible bully for whom the description troll is too kind, was finally kicked off Twitter, having stirred up a racist and sexist mob against Leslie Jones, one of the stars of the new Ghostbusters movie. It was not, by any means, his first offence – he has made quite the career as a professional provocateur, usually targeting women and racial minorities.

Attack on free speech

His banning was greeted with the predictable range of responses – uproar among his so-called “alt-right” followers, full of grievance and insecurity; delight among most sensible people glad to see his poisonous persona gone from the platform; and concern among many thoughtful people who saw in the banning an attack on the principle of free speech.

The case encapsulated Twitter and social media’s problem with abuse, and the difficulties in curbing offensive speech.

Certainly, Twitter has done a poor job policing its own platform and developing tools for victims of abuse to protect themselves from the mob – some elementary mass-blocking algorithms at the time of a mob attack would go a long way, but the service hasn’t thoroughly explored them.

Fundamental challenges

However, it also faces some fundamental challenges. People have been saying mean things on the internet anonymously since the earliest internet forums. But that sort of abuse was relatively easy for victims to ignore.

With Twitter, on the other hand, the existence of @replies gives bullies a way to serve their bile right in to their victims’ Twitter mentions feed, turning it in to a weaponised bullying vector.

Once it became clear that abusive behaviour was a serious problem afflicting the platform, Twitter had a window of opportunity to clamp down. But once those norms of civility were breached, it attracted even more hostile trolling behaviour from people. In this regard, consider it analogous to the way traffic increases to fill a new motorway – especially one with no tolls or highway police enforcing the speed limit.

As US writer Kevin Drum put it when discussing two journalists who abandoned the service earlier this year: “In the end this is a lesson about economics. What happens when you vastly reduce the cost of being an asshole? Answer: the supply of assholes goes up. That’s what Twitter has done for us.”

Overton window

Previously in this column, I discussed how social media is opening up the Overton window, which describes the range of acceptable political discourse on any given topic. For example, in the US the enthusiasm generated by the campaigns of Bernie Sanders on the one side and Donald Trump on the other was largely down to their willingness to say things that had previously been occluded from mainstream political discourse – not to suggest democratic socialism and racist nationalism are in any way equivalent, of course. Some of that, at least, can be attributed to a disruption in traditional media.

But perhaps social media is opening up an Overton window not just of political discourse but also a window defining the limits of basic civility. It took a long time to make racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and sexist abuse socially unacceptable, with a social penalty for people who breach those norms.

Not long ago, we did not have a means for everybody on the planet to broadcast themselves, or at least their thoughts, in 140-character chunks. Now that we do, we discover that a higher-than-expected proportion of people are irredeemably horrible, and imposing a social cost on their obnoxious behaviour is more difficult than in real life.

When we think of disruption, we tend to think of technology’s impact on older technologies and the businesses associated with that technology. But of course, all that disruption doesn’t just affect businesses – it affects the way we live, and cumulatively it affects how we behave.

The notion of technological determinism, the Marxist theory that social change is driven and even governed by technological innovation, is a fascinating concept that is key to appreciating the role technology plays in our lives. The theory is most often applied to productive technologies – ploughs and looms and factories and now the internet – and how they affect the economic foundation of any society, where the effects of technology can be more straightforwardly traced.

Social impact

But it would be foolish to think that suddenly giving everyone in the world a means to broadcast themselves, with a dramatic change on the constraints on behaviour, isn’t going to have a deep and long-lasting social impact.

I’m certainly of the view that social media will be a net benefit overall while still acknowledging the coarsening effect on our discourse, but the question itself should be a salutary lesson that technology isn’t good or bad – indeed it doesn’t have any moral conscience at all. It is just an agent of change, a great disruptor. And ultimately what it disrupts is us.

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