Against a Twitter “report abuse” button

Apparently the latest thing that people want to campaign for is a “report abuse” button for Twitter. Once again, it is my sad duty to say that while I agree with the principles, the idea itself is actually quite silly and might make things worse. To be honest, I’m considering automating my blog, so often do I come to this conclusion. The same piece, over and over again, just inserting the name of whatever liberal feminist campaign du jour is about.

But I digress. What could possibly be wrong with a button to make it easier to report abuse on Twitter, and automate suspensions of abusers? Rather a lot, actually. I can foresee, within seconds of it happening, that I would disappear off of the face of Twitter, for starters.

See, I have a habit of being pretty fucking rude to people who behave oppressively. I use rude words and tell people to choke on various bodily secretions. I don’t let things drop. I hold people to account, sometimes seriously and sometimes by gleefully engaging in some pure, unadulterated puerile trolling. I subtweet shade, leaving it where it can be found by the vanity searchers, and I’m not afraid to call out the racists, the misogynists, the transphobes and homophobes and ableists of the world. That would get me banned pretty fucking quickly, only taking a few powerful people to get pissed off at me. And my goodness, I piss off the powerful.

But surely any new measures would have differentiation between abuse and a good old-fashioned flaming targeted at an utter dicklord? Probably not. Already, I have seen good feminists and anti-racists suspended from Twitter for hurting the precious feelings of the poor misogynists and racists. This goes through the current Twitter abuse channels. A “report abuse” button would speed up this process considerably, allowing for an ever-greater greater quantity of marginalised voices to be silenced completely, to be left unable to fight back. Making reporting abuse easier will just create a larger volume of tweets which must be sifted through, making it take more not less time to weed out the abuse from the vexatious complaints.

The problem is, a lot of the supporters of this seem to consider anything other than utmost deference and politeness to be “trolling”. Take, for example, Caitlin fucking Moran, who has been exceptionally vocal in this, and with good reason: people are often cross with her for saying really fucking horrible shit. She disingenuously pretends that this instant accountability afforded by the Twitter age is somehow an orchestrated campaign of silencing and abuse. She wants to continue being able to flaunt her privilege and announce to the world that she’s kind of racist, kind of classist, kind of ableist and kind of transphobic. She wants to do all of this without ever being called out on it.

The thing with politeness is that it’s a rule of communication which is inherently slanted in favour of the white, economically-privileged person with the luxury of considering other people’s problems a purely academic question. It’s easy to be polite if you are questioning someone’s very existence, and not so easy when it cuts the other way. When I see misogyny, I don’t want to be fucking polite. It’s not a matter for fucking debate. And the same goes for any injustice I perceive. We’re never going to get fucking anywhere if we continually defer to our oppressors.

But because of their position of power, they see our questioning their role as the oppressor as abuse, and they will gladly use any new measures to silence those who have found the voice to question the status quo. Any new abuse policy Twitter would implement would have to accept the difference between calling out and abuse, and I don’t think it would ever do that, as to acknowledge the direction in which power is directed is far beyond far too many people. These people focus on “equality”, and “equality” is precisely how white people declare anti-racism campaigns to be racist against white people, and misogynists cry MISANDRY whenever a woman challenges them. Imagine the outcry if Twitter did the right thing here: we would be drowning in white male tears, and Twitter would back down before one could finish typing “your a dick” and sending it to a well-known evolutionary biologist. Furthermore, abuse can be polite. Indeed, the polite stuff is often the most insidious, given that that the privileged who insist on politeness at all times fail to recognise it as abuse. It remains an enormous problem.

So instead we’d be stuck with what I’ll call the “silence marginalised voice that hurt your privileged fee-fees button”. And I can’t get behind that, because there are a lot of good voices who will be further silenced by those with the power and the platform.

What can be done, instead? After all, oppressive abuse does still run rampant in the online environment. The thing is, that is a reflection of the general oppressive and abusive culture we inhabit. And therefore, the same measures need to be taken. We need fucking solidarity. Stand with people fighting oppression, and support their struggles. Offer help when someone is getting shit, and chase the fuckers off. Accept your own role in oppression, and strive to mitigate it, accepting that you will likely be told off from time to time for fucking up, and that it’s not going to be polite. Kick up, don’t kick down. Don’t work within the system: tear it down and salt the earth beneath it. Show compassion for those who are having a hard time.

Unfortunately, we live in an age where people want quick fixes, no matter how inadequate they are. We live in an age where people will gladly forge a weapon which may be used against them. And then there are some who would seek to punish anyone who criticises them, and are salivating at the consequences of this measure.

The good news is, a lot of them will be sulking off of Twitter on August 4th. The commentariat Cult of Nice will be “boycotting” Twitter that day, displaying that they don’t really know what a boycott is. That day will be a good day for marginalised voices. No longer will they be silenced and drowned out by those who like to talk over everyone and silence the voices that we should be hearing. That day, Twitter will be ours. I propose we spend the day listening to one another, building solidarity and laying the groundwork for changing the world. We have a day unpoliced by oppressors. Let’s use it.

13 thoughts on “Against a Twitter “report abuse” button”

  1. See, I have a habit of being pretty fucking rude to people who behave oppressively. I use rude words and tell people to choke on various bodily secretions. I don’t let things drop. I hold people to account, sometimes seriously and sometimes by gleefully engaging in some pure, unadulterated puerile trolling.

    That’s why we love you, stavvers.

  2. Thanks for this rational response to the ‘report abuse’ campaign – very insightful. I was about to sign the petition, thinking I would be helping. Now I realise it would be a weapon of more general censorship. Good work.

  3. I agree with a great deal of what you say. I think that group response to situations like this can help, if the person is well known enough. I worry about those who have a handful of followers and get this abuse.

  4. There’s another risk here related to ones you’ve already raised. That’s that certain individuals and organisations who attract ire will be targeted by intentional campaigns using the report abuse button. They may be cleared every time but if they endure multiple temporary suspensions on an ongoing basis, they’ll effectively be silenced. I think we all know that there are groups out there (sadly including some of those who describe themselves as feminists) which would not hesitate to take advantage of such an opportunity.

    1. Agree wholeheartedly. Similar campaigns using the “report spam” button have already been used against antifascist organisations and sex worker advocacy groups 😦

  5. You make some very good points. I can see both sides of this one as rape threats and similar intimidation are already used to silence people. We seem to have a choice between that kind of silencing or the abuse button being used to get the same job done: a lose-lose proposition.

    What I’d be interested in is whether there are processes and controls we can put in place to sufficiently mitigate the risks you are highlighting.

    So automatic account suspension based on number of reports is clearly a bad idea. But how about a process where all reports are handled by real humans based on clear guidelines, decisions are published alongside the reasoning behind them, and there’s a clear and effective appeals process in place? (Yes, some of that might be expensive.)

    I don’t know if that is the solution, and I don’t think there is an easy solution. But I am interested in the thought experiment.

  6. I won’t be boycotting twitter based on a few journalists who don’t know how to dial 999. Typical nonsense. I agree with your article

  7. and @the_block_bot has a good shared block list of MRAs/TERFs/SWERFs/ general anti-feminists and trolls/stalkers. Anyone signed up will automatically block them unless they are following. Seems shared lists like this are one way of dealing with them as when one is reported they are blocked by hundreds (Or however many sign up) instantly. There are less opportunities for them to abuse other users then… Also when really abusive as with Caroline Criado-Perez they can be blocked and reported for spam automatically, this sometimes gets them kicked off Twitter.

  8. The block bot mentioned in previous comment looks great. If the maintenance of the block list was decentralised it would be even better. That way we can have some defence against abuse without turning to a central authority (be it Twitter or the police) which would misuse the rules to censor people.

  9. I like this article a lot. It’s notable that most of the loudest voices in support of this ‘report abuse’ button seem to be silent when it comes to battling this hideous government and its malevolent actions.

    A recent example of a co-ordinated Twitter campaign which brought some amusement to its proponents and justified annoyance to its targets was the hijacking of the ‘Welfare To Work’ conference hashtag. The ‘Welfare To Work’ industry is profiting from the huge amounts of misery it causes to its victims. I’ve not seen the likes of Moran or Criado-Perez going anywhere near this issue. I don’t give a flying fuck who appears on banknotes; I’m concerned about the people who don’t have enough of them to live.

    1. Bloody hell, I worded that badly. Criado-Perez has been through hell and I should have acknowledged that; also, the banknotes thing is more than I’ve managed. Nevertheless, I basically agree with the piece above. Should probably have left it at that.

  10. All over considerations aside, I simply think a report button on twitter would actually make Twitter an even more difficult environment to deal with. I’m basing this off the similar feature used in the game League of Legends (non-gamers stick with me here) which implemented an easily spammable report button in response to the toxic environment the game’s community. It did very little to help, in fact it made things worse because all of the people screaming racist homophobic abuse at each over now had another weapon: the report button itself. If the person they were insulting said anything even slightly over the line in response: boom – they got reported too.

    Similarly, as the above post says, it’s hard to imagine that an abuse button wouldn’t lead to the people being dicks being able to report any criticism of their behaviour as ‘abuse’. I certainly think that there needs to be a better system for somebody to defend themselves, some of the abuse that I’ve seen women get on twitter is appalling, but the abuse button isn’t it.

  11. Back in the dark ages of the Internet, before most blogs (or blog software) existed, I used to argue on iVillage’s debate boards. Most of their boards are support boards, but they have a few boards dedicated to debate (at least, they used to, I haven’t been there in years).

    The boards were governed by two documents, their actual ToS, which were vaguely-worded at best, and an even more nebulous document called the “Rules of Play.” This airy-fairy bit of wishful thinking was filled with nebulous directives and suggestions like “we will be a clean, well-lighted place for discussion” and “feel free to disagree, but do so with a sense of caring and respect” (not actual quotes, I’m paraphrasing.

    What was the result? Utter chaos, as you’d expect. Each board had a “CL” (community leader) who was a volunteer supervisor for the board. Because IV was desperate for volunteers to oversee boards, they’d take pretty much anyone who applied, resulting in some truly awful human beings getting to be in charge of interpreting these nebulous rules on a board-by-board basis. People – many of them, I think – were actually attracted by the promise of a respectful dialogue held out by the aspirations in the Rules of Play, but that just made them all the more bitterly disappointed when they found that often, bad behavior was tolerated if you were “friends” with the CL or had the right enemies.

    A large part of the reason Twitter works, I’m convinced, is due to the lack of overt meddling in it. Yes, they’ll take down truly illegal stuff like child-porn links/tweets, etc. but if someone calls you an asshole, you’re expected to deal with it yourself, just like you’d have to do out in public. Already, there are gangs of twitter users who band together via DM to spam-block a certain user they all despise, in order to get that person’s account suspended. I can only imagine such behavior would be enabled by making it a one-click affair to report abuse. The day Twitter becomes a destination where the largest or best-connected gangs of people can compel the behavior of others through intimidation is the day it begins to die, slowly. People will begin to realize, gradually at first, but accelerating in geometric progression, that the last thing they need is to willingly participate (or try to accomplish things) somewhere that’s become just one more place where favoritism, bias and influence-peddling rules the day.

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