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ignoring abuse on your platform is not a neutral stance

12 February 2016

This is the fourth installment in a two-month series of posts on the intersection of politics and technology, written for a class at Western Washington University. The series consists of two bookend posts with four focused discussions in between; this is the third discussion. You can find the other posts here, here, here, here, and here.

There are some pretty big problems with social media right now. Or, it might be more accurate to say there’s one big problem – but it’s really big. The problem is how, in this age, we deal with abuse and harassment online.

It borders on impossible to express the scope of online abuse and harassment. Probably the most famous example is Gamergate, which we’re not going to get into here, because I’d rather eat glass than even do that shitstorm the dignity of a summary. Look it up in another tab if you really don’t know.

The point is, there are a number of well-known cases where specific individuals have been targeted by huge crowds for harassment and abuse. But there are orders upon orders of magnitude more cases that have not become even remotely as well-known, but which nevertheless have caused very real harm in people’s lives.

In 2014, the Pew research center conducted a study on harassment, with some striking findings. The worst forms of abusive harassment targeted women disproportionately more than men. This may not come as a surprise, but the sheer numbers involved are staggering: 26% of women aged 18-24 reported stalking, 25% reported sexual harassment, and 18% reported sustained harassment. The corresponding figures for men were 7%, 13%, and 16%, respectively.

The takeaway is this: If we sincerely care about fostering diversity in online communities – and we all should – then the first step is to recognize how abusive harassment disproportionately targets some demographics over others. Otherwise, it is impossible to put together a coherent picture of how these behaviors take place on whatever platform you might be dealing with.

It goes beyond harassment, in fact: A recent study suggests that women’s contributions to open-source projects on Github tend to be accepted more often than men’s – unless the reviewer knows that the code was submitted by a woman, in which case the acceptance rate plummets. Why is the gender distribution of core developers for major open-source projects so lopsided? Gosh, I wonder.

But I’ve managed to sidetrack myself again. The real point I want to be getting to here near the end of the post is about how institutions handle abuse, or how they fail to. I’m mostly going to pick on Twitter, because if I focused on Reddit et al. instead we’d be here all fucking night. It’s mind-bogglingly bad. Ellen Pao tried to take some small, common-sense steps to improve things, and look how that went.

That reminds me: There’s one thing we have to get out of the way right now. Let me put it this way. I adore freedom of speech – it’s an absolute, unconditional prerequisite to any broader freedoms – but that fondness does not extend to most of its most vocal invokers. You know, the people who, soon as they start to sense resistance, start bellowing that you can’t do this! I have freedom of speech!

There are so many things wrong with this. First off, not everyone lives in the United States, which is almost never even acknowledged here. Like, come on. Second, the first amendment grants you the right to free speech, not the right to be listened to. Third, there are notable exceptions to free speech, like for fighting words or specific kinds of hate speech. Fourth, if someone points out that what you’re doing is actively harmful, and your best response is “yeah, but you can’t make me stop”, that really should prompt some serious introspection. Free speech is great, but having nothing on your side except free speech? Slightly less great. Fifth, really all this is moot because private platforms are not the government.

With that out of the way, here’s a couple notes on Twitter in particular. Twitter gets a kick out of pretending they take a neutral stance towards content shared on their platform. They’ve called themselves ‘the free speech wing of the free speech party’. This blind enthusiasm might remind you of a discussion we just had. The issue is, serious harassment restricts ordinary people’s willingness to exercise their freedom of speech, both due to emotional fatigue and, in many cases, the fear of personal harm. Refusing to take action against this form of harassment is, unavoidably, an implicit endorsement of its consequences.

So make no mistake: Freedom of speech is still restricted under this “pro-free-speech” platform. It’s just that instead of restricting the speech of vitriolic spewmongers who devote countless hours to tormenting their fellow human beings, the platform restricts the speech of their targets. This is not a neutral stance, it is a pro-vitriol stance. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this stance is, in fact, anti-compassion. And, of course, it should almost go without saying that this stance is also implicitly every bit as sexist, racist, and otherwise bigoted as the abusers it enables are. How is anyone okay with this?

Motherboard has an interesting timeline outlining how Twitter’s rules have changed over its lifespan, along with the cultural shifts that accompanied these changes. It’s an interesting story. One big takeaway is that, while Twitter has made some good changes in the past couple of years, its changes have not been universally positive, and we still haven’t yet reached a good place.

One anecdote in particular comes to mind. Just the other week, a parody account mocking Twitter support and particularly support’s reluctance to suspend or otherwise take action against abusers and harassers…

was itself suspended. At least it’s good to know the account suspension feature still works, I guess.