Jo Komisarczuk referred, on Twitter, this piece by Rory Cellan-Jones. The title, ‘Twitter and the poisoning of online debate’, gives you a good indication of the topic, and it centres around an incident dubbed ‘Gamergate’. While I haven’t followed the Gamergate controversy, I am told that it centres around sexism and misogyny in the gaming industry, to the point where, in Jo’s words, ‘women are now scared to talk about it publicly’. Cellan-Jones refers to Twitter attacks on women, including threats of rape, and:
And for weeks now women in the video games industry have been under attack. There have been death threats, “doxing”—publishing personal information online—and all manner of insults directed at women who have expressed views about gaming deemed unacceptable by some gamers.
It’s disgraceful, though sadly not altogether surprising, that this sort of misogyny carries on in the 21st century—but when the gender gap has not closed and the way women are portrayed in media is still generally slanted against them, it reminds all of us that there is a great deal of work to do in treating everyone fairly and respectfully.
Twitter, however, isn’t helping.
For a long while, Twitter was different, a place where people were who they said they were and were aware that a tweet was a public statement for which you could be called to account. Now though, a rash of spam and so-called sockpuppet accounts have started to poison this well too. High profile users under assault from such accounts find that they block them, only for new ones to pop up instantly.
I Facebooked earlier today (ironically, despite my saying I was decreasing my interaction on the service last night): ‘Like so many other technologies (e.g. email) it starts off with new, optimistic early adopters. Then the low-lifes, spammers and bots start coming in.’ You could also add one politician’s wife whose sole intent on Twitter was to launch attacks.
I saw a lot of trolling in the 2013 campaign but none in 2010, and put it down to mere politics, but to be reminded by Cellan-Jones that this happens to people who aren’t putting themselves out there to be elected is disappointing. Those of us who seek public office should, by the very act of running, expect it, but I never had threats of harm directed at me. If we’ve descended into this, having to field personal attacks and threats, then what is the point of some of these services? These aren’t even conflicting opinions, in the cases I observed last year, but people out there for the sake of shit-stirring, to be reactive—it is effectively pointless. Does this not discourage everyday people from putting themselves out there, at a time when we keep saying we want our representatives, be they political, social or commercial, to be folks who are in touch with us?
You can see these same arguments apply to the blogosphere and Nicky Hager’s point that attacks on private citizens dissuades others from standing for public office. You can take similar arguments into other areas: if you make a position so unsavoury, then we miss out on good people who could become great leaders.
We can’t expect people to keep migrating to new services where the trendy, friendly early adopters reside, since they never have the reach. Restricting freedom of speech goes against some of our basic values. Making your account private to only a handful means creating a bubble, and that doesn’t serve you. Confucius might say that education and self-regulation are the key, but that could depend on whether netizens want to be on these social networks to speak out against this negative behaviour in the meantime.
We might say there is nothing new under the sun, and these latest incidents simply expose behaviours that were prevalent for years. Even if that were the case, it’s not too late to change things. We’d all prefer a level of civilized debate and a decent exchange of views—and it may be up to everyday people to simply ignore the attackers and trolls, and not give them the satisfaction of knowing that got to someone. If it gets to a point where a crime is committed (e.g. a threat of harm is made), then the authorities should be involved. As to the victims, we should convey our support to them.
Or is there yet another way?