Speaking out, standing ground and shouting back is the only option: ceding territory to the trolls is a mistake

shout back

Much has been written in the last number of weeks on twitter trolls, threats against women and the need to “take back Twitterville” as a community. Some of the commentary has been excellent in its balanced and rational approach – such as Marta Cooper’s piece in The Telegraph and Padraig Reidy’s commentary. Much of the debate has, however, been less positive, verging at times on hysteria with some going so far as to suggest that the majority of men are misogynist in an attempt to claim the argument against hate-speech for feminism to the neglect of other groups impacted.

Up to now, I really didn’t feel I could add anything to the debate. That is, until the idea of #twittersilence raised its head, along with the suggestion that not supporting the protest drew the allegation that it was akin to telling those abused by trolls to “put up or shut up”.

As someone who describes herself as a feminist and as an ardent supporter of free speech including for those, perhaps most especially those, I disagree with (which has landed me in no small amount of trouble for example, in the defence of @Ireland ‘s choice to invite John McGuirk to curate the account for a week) this development in the debate – the suggestion that we cede territory to the troll is, to me, unimaginable.

That Twitter has trolls and abusers is not surprising. In some ways, it’ a sign that it’s closer to an online microcosm of the “real world” than to the “echo-chamber” of left wing mob-mentality it is often classed as. In some ways it shows that Twitter is us, our society, just on a different platform.

Abuse exists in society – but we deal with it. We do not give up, and we do not walk away. Quite apart from the logistical nativity of #twittersilence (how does anyone know you’re protesting in silence unless you actually break the silence to tweet and use the hashtag – you could just as easily be having a busy day!) to suggest that a silent protest or boycotting of a shared online community is some “response” to trolls is to entirely miss the point.

As a kid, I was always taught to stand up to bullies – I’m not sure when this thinking changed (or if indeed, it has) but to suggest that we cede our online community of Twitter to the trolls and abusers sends a horrible message not only for those who are abused and so often struggle to speak up, but to young people (young women in particular if we bring feminism back into it) that walking away is somehow a better option than standing and fighting back.

The recent #StandWithWendy showed the power of standing your ground, of not giving up, of not staying quiet, of believing that the power of speech (coupled with a near super-human will power to literally stand your ground) could really change things. This is what we can’t lose sight of. Words change history. Words start wars and, importantly, they end them. The words “I have a dream” changed history. So did “ich bin ein Berliner”. The potential held by words are what has brought deeply divided Israeli and Palestinian groups back into a room. Words are what helped reach the Good Friday Agreement. Everywhere you look in politics, social change and mass movements you see the power of words. Yes, there is always more to the eventual outcome than rhetoric alone, but showing up, engaging, talking, having your say… this is where it starts.

Let me be very clear – any form of threat or abuse on or offline is unacceptable to me irrespective of your gender or any other characteristic. I am not suggesting women (or anyone else for that matter) put up or shut up but rather that existing law be used for the purpose it is intended. I don’t believe it is Twitter’s responsibility to “police” the internet – we have real-life police forces for that. Certainly, more evidence of Twitter’s policy on supporting law enforcement in the investigation and appropriate prosecution of threats is required, but it cannot be Twitter’s responsibility to enforce “online law” across international boundaries and multiple jurisdictions.

What the community of Twitter looks and feels like is up to us. We are responsible. Where you see trolling or abuse, speak out and report it. Where you see abuse or hate-speech, stand your ground. Where a troll picks on you, or someone they believe is weaker, or more vulnerable, shout back. Together we are stronger than the trolls. It is they, not us, who should be silenced not by censorship but by the more powerful force of mass communication. If there is a debate, engage (particularly with those who do not share your world view – perspectives that are limited only to those “on your side” are weaker by nature). If you disagree, say so (certainly, “play the ball, not the man” – don’t personalise debates). But whatever you do, don’t be silent.

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About frimframworld

Total coffee fan, dedicated foodie & news hound. Strategic PR & political comms as a day job. All comments my own - blogging in a personal capacity only.

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  1. The Dark Knight of “Feminism” | Frimframworld - August 5, 2013

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