Feminist writer and educator Lindy West quit Twitter today because Nazis:
Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out. I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living – in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.
That wasn’t why she quit though, or wasn’t what prompted her to pull the trigger. No, that was something rather more than personal:
I hate to disappoint anyone, but the breaking point for me wasn’t the trolls themselves (if I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt) – it was the global repercussions of Twitter’s refusal to stop them. The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.
On 29 December, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted: “What’s the most important thing you want to see Twitter improve or create in 2017?” One user responded: “Comprehensive plan for getting rid of the Nazis.”
“We’ve been working on our policies and controls,” Dorsey replied. “What’s the next most critical thing?” Oh, what’s our second-highest priority after Nazis? I’d say No 2 is also Nazis. And No 3. In fact, you can just go ahead and slide “Nazis” into the top 100 spots. Get back to me when your website isn’t a roiling rat-king of Nazis. Nazis are bad, you see?
Well, yes, Nazis* are bad, and Twitter isn’t the only medium or social medium wrestling with what, exactly, to do about that. Still, Twitter has been almost unique in its ratio of encouraging talk to gross inaction. And I suspect that, as with most problems, it probably comes down to money.
What I mean by that is this. I’ve been online in various ways for going on 30 years, and in all that time I have yet to see an online community that wasn’t ruined by, for lack of a better term, trolls in the absence of moderators. (For the first decade or so of my life online, I wasn’t convinced moderators were necessary; not for the first time, I admit I was wrong.) But moderating takes time, and time takes money, and over its life as a public company (i.e., since late 2013), Twitter has, per generally accepted accounting principles, never made money. Since its 2006 founding, it has burned through more than $2 billion. And its user growth has slowed to the point at which near- to medium-term profits look unlikely.
More to the point, though, CEO Jack Dorsey has never said anything publicly that suggests to me that he truly understands that he has a problem. But he does. As Leigh Alexander (no relation) wrote in the context of Gamergate, “When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.”
Dorsey, his executives and his board absolutely have a moral obligation to users of their service not to let that service become a sinkhole of Nazi shit. And for a lot of people who don’t look like me — a cishet middle-aged, white, until-recently-Republican male — it already is.
Moreover, I would argue that they have an obligation to their shareholders not to let the service become a sinkhole of Nazi shit, because while that might give you a profitable quarter or two, it spells doom for the business’s long-term financial interests and those of its shareholders.
And, finally, I would argue that they have an obligation to the public in general, in the U.S. and abroad, not to allow their service to become a sinkhole of Nazi shit because Nazi shit is gaining popularity and causing problems around the world. It is competing with Vlad Putin right now as the No. 1 danger to small-l liberal democracy worldwide. And it should be denied any foothold it attempts to seek. Twitter isn’t just a medium anymore; it’s also an organizing and fundraising tool. Dorsey et al. need to deny its benefits to Nazis and their backers.
And it’s especially important to do so here in the U.S., where an illegitimate president-elect is backed by Nazis. As an article a month ago in the Guardian by Matt Lees explains, what happened in Gamergate absolutely predicted what has happened in the past year, and is happening now, with Donald Trump:
The similarities between Gamergate and the far-right online movement, the “alt-right”, are huge, startling and in no way a coincidence. After all, the culture war that began in games now has a senior representative in The White House. As a founder member and former executive chair of Brietbart News, Steve Bannon had a hand in creating media monster Milo Yiannopoulos, who built his fame and Twitter following by supporting and cheerleading Gamergate. This hashtag was the canary in the coalmine, and we ignored it. …
n 2014, the media’s reaction was often weak or overtly conciliatory – some sites went out of their way to “see both sides”, to reassure people that openly choosing to be affiliated with a hate group did not make them in any way responsible for that hate. Olive branches were extended, but professional lives continued to be ruined while lukewarm op-eds asked for us to come together so we could start “healing”. The motivations may have been sound, but it’s the language Trump and his supporters have used post-election to obliterate dissenting voices.
In 2016, new wave conservative media outlets like Breitbart have gained trust with their audience by painting traditional news sources as snooty and aloof. In 2014, video game YouTube stars, seeking to appear in touch with online gaming communities, unscrupulously proclaimed that traditional old-media sources were corrupt.
Everything we’re seeing now, had its precedent two years ago. …
Looking back, Gamergate really only made sense in one way: as an exemplar of what Umberto Eco called “eternal fascism”, a form of extremism he believed could flourish at any point in, in any place – a fascism that would extol traditional values, rally against diversity and cultural critics, believe in the value of action above thought and encourage a distrust of intellectuals or experts – a fascism built on frustration and machismo. The requirement of this formless fascism would – above all else – be to remain in an endless state of conflict, a fight against a foe who must always be portrayed as impossibly strong and laughably weak. This was the methodology of Gamergate, and it now forms the basis of the contemporary far-right movement.
We have no idea where this will lead, but our continued insistence on shrugging off the problems of the internet as “not real” – as something we can just log out of – is increasingly misled. 2016 has presented us with a world in which our reality is being wilfully manipulated. Fake news, divisive algorithms, misleading social media campaigns. The majority of people who voted for Trump will never take responsibility for his racist, totalitarian policies, but they’ll provide useful cover and legitimacy for those who demand the very worst from the President Elect. Trump himself may have disavowed the “alt-right”, but his rhetoric has led to them feeling legitimised. As with Gamergate, the press risks being manipulated into a position where it has to tread a respectful middle ground that doesn’t really exist.
Prominent critics of the Trump administration need to learn from Gamergate. They need to be preparedforabuse, for falsified concerns, invented grassroots campaigns designed specifically to break, belittle, or disgrace. Words and concepts will be twisted, repackaged and shared across forums, stripping them of meaning. Gamergate painted critics as censors, the far-right movement claims critics are the real racists.
Perhaps the true lesson of Gamergate was that the media is culturally unequipped to deal with the forces actively driving these online movements. The situation was horrifying enough two years ago, it is many times more dangerous now.
Obviously, Jack Dorsey and Twitter aren’t responsible for all of this. But within his own lane, Dorsey and the organization he leads have an obligation to the service’s users and their fellow Americans to run a service that, if it doesn’t facilitate the best that America on the Internet can be, at least doesn’t allow the worst to prey on everyone else.
*In this post, and on this blog generally, I do not use the term “alt-right.” That’s Orwellian nonsense. These people are Nazis, just as their dads were when I was covering the Klan and other right-wing white-nationalist groups back in the ’80s. They’re not even “neo-Nazis”; there’s nothing neo- about them.
Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns!, Evil, Geek-related issues, Hold! Them! Accountable!, I want my country back., Journalism Tagged: GamerGate, Jack Dorsey, Leigh Alexander, Lindy West, Matt Lees, Nazis, neo-Nazis, Twitter