Every so often, somebody feels the need to clean up social media. Twitter is full of trolls and Something Must Be Done.
My answer, of course, is regulation. If the State would hold Twitter accountable for its content, it will immediately clamp down on antisocial content like Nazis. But that smells too much like ‘censorship’ for liberals, and so the option is drowned out by a chorus of Voltaire-quoters. Letting the State regulate public discourse is, apparently, a bigger problem than actual Nazis. In my view, this ignores the lesson of history: the reluctance of the State to regulate its extremes is what results in the worst of collective human action.
But that’s for another day.
Without formal regulation, we are left with informal regulation. Into this issue stepped Julian Burnside, one of Australia’s most prominent liberals, with a modest proposal:[tweet https://twitter.com/JulianBurnside/status/980342314768871424]
But is this wise? Do we want public megaphones curating Twitter blocklists?
Last month, it was revealed that the prominent TERFblocker list contained a not insignificant number of trans people. The list had been promoted as a way for people to enjoy a Twitter experience without being exposed to a particular sort of hateful content, namely transphobic content. The discovery that it was also blocking members of the trans community was, in the words of the TERFblocker’s admin ‘really upsetting‘. Even after being rebuilt, it’s still throwing up false positives.
It’s difficult not to imagine that there’s some mischief at play with people deliberately trying to hijack the tool. But it’s also possible that there are genuine misunderstandings. Twitter is full of extremely unstable people who are quick to anger and outrage.
And we see this with other blocklists. As a person who openly identifies as being conservative, I’m on several of these lists: ‘Better safe than sorry’. One prominent Australian Twitter user has an elaborate and convoluted conspiracy theory about me, and another prominent Australian Twitter user is a crazed lunatic who has caused me to lock down my account a few times because her fans contact my employer. When we start crowdsourcing blocklists, how do we prevent the mad, sad, and bad from hijacking them with what they believe are genuine, sincere, and rational reasons for blocking?
The intuition is correct: we need a way to filter out the extremes, but the method of having private, influential people determining the extremes is terrible.
Part of the problem is the nature of ‘dissent’. It’s too easy for hateful people to wear the cloak of ‘dissenter’ or ‘free-thinker’ to evade censure — especially when such people are so prominent in public debate. Mens Rights Activist groups are full of people who think contrarianism is a substitute for critical thinking.
But it’s also too easy for broken people to feel like any and all dissent which doesn’t make them feel important, intelligent, and clever is insincere contrarianism. Elizabeth Bruenig is a highly intelligent, insightful socialist thinker, but a recent controversy erupted because she’s morally opposed to abortion. This, in the view of broken people offended by dissent, meant that she was antifeminist and deserving of censure and abuse. How quickly she’d appear on a blocklist because her views are more sophisticated than her detractors.
Burnside himself would fall victim to this same fate. Forget his ‘padeos in speedos’ comment (which he somehow believes was innocent), and consider instead his repeated use of ableist slurs. Or consider his support for the ASRC’s Kon Karapanagiotidis when he was accused of harassment of women: ‘I’ve never seen Kon behave in a way that I would fault‘.
Let’s take a different approach. Think of the good Burnside could do instead by promoting the views that he wants to see rather than trying to shepherd sanctions against the views that he doesn’t. What are the views that Burnside disagrees with but nevertheless thinks they have merit? Burnside is somewhat infamous for not entering this space of public debate, preferring instead only to respond to trolls and to draw attention to the extremes. In this way, Burnside (and others like him) rewards with attention those he thinks deserve censure. If we collectively stopped rewarding attention-seekers, we would incentivise better public debate. Most importantly, it doesn’t exclude views based on somebody’s say so, but creates a space for inclusive public debate. Admittedly, I don’t think we’ll see this from Burnside because I don’t rate him as a serious thinker. When it comes to his pet topics, I don’t think he has the capability to see views from another perspective.
Finally, we can see a really nasty element to Burnside’s preferred method of social regulation that’s worth critiquing. While claiming the need to call out the trolls, Burnside repeated the idea that anonymity was a problem. Burnside doesn’t ‘hide‘. People with real arguments ‘reveal their identities‘. We could publish the names of people who offend us ‘but they hide their true identity‘.
By nature, I am against anonymity and sympathise with Burnside’s intuitions. But my views are really outdated here, especially in the face of unprecedented consequences for public backlash for views. Burnside speaks from a position of privilege: nobody can contact his employer to seek sanctions for slights real or imagined. Both conservative and progressive public servants have had to deal with irritating issues arising from them stepping slightly too far into public debate without wearing a suitable disguise. Employers are increasingly hostile to political speech from their employees. Hostility towards anonymity became the ‘respectable’ suit and tie for the Islamophobic attack on the burqa:
There is no good argument to ban the burqa. It’s a racist proposal, pure and simple. There is a smokescreen that racists use to hide their racism: they argue that we need to be able to see faces because it helps with security. This is not a reasonable argument, and it flows from an intuition that anonymity is a threat and that everybody should present themselves for scrutiny at all times.
To put this more clearly, even though anonymity in public makes me extremely anxious, I think it’s extremely unwise to engage in any kind of protest activity or public demonstration without concealing your identity. The potential for surveillance (especially private surveillance) has such a destructive impact on civic engagement that it should be resisted wherever possible.
Do I think we need a way of identifying people online if they engage in egregious conduct? Yes. Do I think that we should create social pressure to discourage anonymity? No. Burnside should not be contributing to a discursive trope that anonymity is the domain only of the illegitimate and the roguish.