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State of the Culture: Black-hearted crow on the Internet

15 April, 2014 0 Comments

Why the unbearable darkness of the twitsphere has made me quit Twitter

By Chris Kenny | The Australian | March 22, 2014


The unbearable lightness of Twitter, as I have explained previously, helps skew political commentary to the lunar left by providing a green-Left echo-chamber.

But there is another side to the twittersphere that is dark and vicious and, sadly, it probably helps to keep out the moderating influence of more mainstream voices.

Among Twitter’s constant political reports, discussions and gibes there is personal abuse of the most foul kind.

Abuse most foul

Profane, violent and sexist, these attacks usually emanate from anonymous or fake accounts. Both ends of the political spectrum dish it out but, given Twitter’s strong green-Left bias, the slurs from the Left dominate, shouting down voices from the Centre Right and spreading the sort of personal hate we saw in the March in March protests last weekend.

Those placards about killing or retrospectively aborting Tony Abbott were shocking to see on our streets but such sentiments would hardly raise an eyebrow on Twitter.

The daily stream is replete with vitriol from fake and anonymous accounts, including many in Abbott’s name (one with his head depicted as a penis — yes it’s that crass and juvenile).

It can be fun to mock the green-Left groupthink and naivety on Twitter but you can pay a high price for such stirring — disgusting abuse, obscene fake accounts borrowing your identity, hounding from obsessive anonymous accounts, death threats and even cancer wished upon your family.

In the end you can take the obvious and sensible option of bailing out of Twitter (as I have done this week) and leaving it to the ferals. No one needs that hatred in their lives.

Misogny rampant

But from what I have seen the twittersphere is most intimidating for women. When women appear on television or radio programs that invite Twitter feedback the abuse often bypasses the issues and zeroes in on the personal, sexist and offensive.

One woman who has experienced this and written about it is Georgina Dent, the associate editor of the Women’s Agenda website.

After appearing on a Sky­News program, Dent says, she “left the studio oblivious to the vitriol” and only later learned of the online abuse (largely from the right of centre in this case).

“From the moment I appeared viewers apparently pounced. Who’s the chick with the ugly earrings?” she later relayed on Women’s Agenda.

Those ‘March in March’ placards about aborting Tony Abbott were shocking to see on our streets but such sentiments would hardly raise an eyebrow on Twitter.

“I was a chick, a babe, a bitch, a ditz. Where did I come from? Who did I think I was?” Dent recounted, noting that she was saved from seeing the worst of it and tried to laugh off the hate.

“But later that night I lay awake, unable to sleep, with all of those vicious thoughts swirling through my mind.

“Not because I thought they were true, and not just because they were aimed at me, but because they came from actual people … Real people who live beside us, work among us and constitute our population. And, as far as I can tell, some of them really hate women.”

Women endure everything from rape and death threats to constant assessments, unpleasantly positive or negative, about their appearance. Twitter provides blocking functions but, in the end, it is impossible to escape the abuse if it is rampant.

People willing to put themselves up as commentators on national affairs need to be able to cop criticism and develop a thick skin. You simply cannot expect to offer opinion and not be derided. But Twitter is a whole other beast and, while I usually rail against the whole “misogynist factor” meme that has tried to explain Julia Gillard’s failed prime ministership, there can be no doubting the targeting of women is more pointed and personal. To consider this we might be conscious of an in-built chauvinism that expects people to treat women with greater respect than men — but it is more than that.

Anonymity of hate

From the anonymity of Twitter we see hateful attacks directed at women that reek of sexual resentment, anger, violence and, dare I say it, misogyny.

And Dent is right that the scary thought is to realise that behind every fake or anonymous account there sits a real person — who knows whether it is the imagined loser sitting in his underpants in a darkened basement or the disaffected bloke on the other side of the office?

It is worrying that the abuse can dissuade people, especially women, from sharing their views and entering the debate.

And, to be sure, the upside of social media is wonderful for public debate. It provides instant feedback and exchanges with public figures and media programs, real-time sharing of information, genuine debate, discussion and jokes with strangers and the opportunity to build links with people who share interests from a wide range of perspectives.

So how can we help people obtain the benefits of Twitter without the hate?

Some users have protected accounts where they have to approve those who follow them, although this limits opportunities to broadcast more generally or build larger followings.

The broader answer has to be to eradicate anonymity.

People simply will not be as disgusting, aggressive and abusive if they are readily identifiable and traceable. And identified offenders can be dealt with.

It would be far too difficult and interventionist to legislate stricter controls on identifying accounts.

But Twitter does check and verify the accounts of public figures to help guard against fakes.

If the company could massively broaden those verification services — or perhaps provide them on request at a fee — users could filter their Twitter feed to verified accounts only.

They could enjoy all the exchanges of Twitter without the anonymous bile. Women, especially, would be better shielded from abuse and perhaps enjoy the discussion without the unbearable darkness of Twitter.

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