Catch you on the flipside, Twitter.
What happens on Twitter when you get too popular too fast.
UPDATE: On 04 March, the bots topped out at 10k. Tweets from @belledejour_uk are now managed remotely. Thank you for the notes of support.
I have a lot of followers on Twitter. Not Gaga-level, but more than most. Some are friends, some are fans, some are hate-follows. And the majority of the recent ones are fakes.
On the 18th of February, my follower count was 34,872. It started going up sharply, by about 500 a day. At first I wasn’t concerned. I had recently been RTd by accounts with a lot of followers and thought that might explain the increase. To put this into context, I usually average about 5–10 new followers a day. Now I was getting about 500 every day.
A couple of days later, with the numbers still steeply rising, I became more worried.
I remembered seeing a tweet from @Popehat from a few years ago. Someone had maliciously bought the account thousands of followers; this is something people do so they can report the account for the fakes, and try to get them kicked off Twitter. Or at least embarrass them in the media: Fake Follower Gotcha is a standard trope used by would-be journalists like David Allen Green, Jeremy Duns, and others to try to boost their own readership. Layers of irony, I tell ya.
I used to believe in Occam’s Razor, but then social media happened. There are no simple explanations anymore. Everyone is into skullduggery now, often for the very pettiest reasons. Who did you piss off by denying an interview request half a decade ago? Who did you block?
At about the same time, odd emails started to arrive at an account that I use to communicate with only a handful of people (but admittedly might be guessed, as it contains parts of my legal name). These emails were not threats, but confirmations of being added to unusual mailing lists, that sort of thing. And that troubled me because while a direct threat is straightforward to deal with, the shadier, subtler art of gaslighting is not. How ridiculous does it look to complain about more followers and email newsletters? I know how it sounds to people who’ve not been on the receiving end. It sounds like you’re losing your mind.
But there are people who do know what this is like. Gamergate victims, for example. I DM’d some of them, folks with experience of both being the target of online harassment and of communicating with Twitter. The response was unanimous: someone is trying to get you banned. Lock your account and start deleting the fake followers.
With a book set to come out on the 25th, I was between a rock and a hard place. Publishers increasingly expect authors to use social media presence to publicise their work to readers. My publisher likes that social media is embedded in my writing and that I engage with a lot of people online - without the Internet, I would never have become a writer at all. Should I lock the account and be unable to promote the book widely, or unlock it and risk a ban? I decided to go quiet on Twitter, keep watching what was coming into the email account, and see what happened. The day of my book release came and went.
By Friday night the Twitter follower count was touching 40k with no sign of slowing. I didn’t have much choice anymore. I locked the account and started blocking the bots and declining the hundreds of follow requests from fakes coming in. But things that look fake might not be, and things that are fake can easily pass detection. If you have recently followed me and find yourself blocked, I apologise — there are going to be some false positives in this process.
I don’t know when it will stop. I hope it tops out at 5k, which is soon. A bit of Googling shows anyone can buy 5,000 followers for anyone else and for as little as $10. I hope someone isn’t spending much more than that, and that they have better things to spend their money on. Books maybe.
The timing of this bothers me. I would be tempted to think it was a coincidence, someone winding me up for no particular reason. But considering that feminist charity Eaves For Women slapped my book The Sex Myth with a libel threat on the day it was released, getting it pulled from shelves nationwide, it is sometimes hard to believe in coincidences.
Eaves dropped the suit of course; their claims had no merit whatsoever and the book was distributed with none of the material about them removed. But they achieved their goal — putting the book out of reach of readers for almost a month so that by the time it was available, the publicity train had moved on. There are tricks if someone has money and wants to derail a book launch. I have been the target of such things before.
People have attempted to drive me off Twitter before. Two years ago a group of minor columnists and their friends invented a conspiracy falsely claiming that a trans sex worker on Twitter was my secret second account. They tried to get me fired from the Telegraph, not realising I had left a month earlier. I don’t know what happened to the other person but I can’t imagine it was good to be outed like that. This set off a wave of harassment from Breitbart, Gamergaters, and pervy journos demanding videos of me having sex (because apparently my well-known first escort ad [NSFW] is not enough proof that I was a professional slut).
This has been a feature of my media presence from the beginning. First, everyone said Belle de Jour had to be a man. Then I was outed. So they said I wasn’t really an escort. Then my ads surfaced. So they said I wasn’t really a PhD. But my thesis is in the British Library, which was hard to fake. Then they said I was too ugly, had bad clothes, had embarrassing relatives… it literally never ends. For people looking for a new angle on discrediting me, why not attack the very basis of my notoriety, my Internet presence?
Once you’re the bad guy, you’re the bad guy forever. Fighting it is just tiresome. And that’s what they want, for you to give up, shut up, go away.
It’s tough this time to identify who specifically wants me off Twitter and why. ‘Gaters upset that I sometimes tweet nice things to their victims? People still nursing a grudge because I wrote some books they didn’t like, and didn’t beg for forgiveness? The well-funded anti-sex work lobby, which is kicking off new campaigns this month? Other lobbies opposed to social justice issues that I support? The person who threatened a US blogger with a libel suit this week? Columnists hoping to manufacture a scandal and trash me again?
Could be any of these. Could as easily be none of the above.
The truth is, I don’t really care. I know from experience there is nothing to be gained by going down the rabbit hole. What would be the point? Knowing wouldn’t change what I write. It is fair to say I have burned a lot of bridges with groups of people who dislike outspoken, and outspokenly sexual, women. I keep disreputable company as a matter of principle. Kissing the ass of the media mediocracy is not high on my to-do list. No regrets, y’all.
Several well-meaning people suggested I “get verified,” but this is not something I have a say in. You don’t just ask and get. That isn’t how Twitter works. And in any case verification is meaningless; blue ticks are the Star-Bellied Sneetches of social media, a pointless prize for the easily pleased.
My account is locked and I will not be updating for the foreseeable future. Deleting it would only encourage fake accounts — something I’ve had a problem with before — and I have not yet ruled out passing the account over to someone else to schedule automated promotional tweets. The people who know me well already know how and where they can get in contact with me.
As I was writing this, another 125 follow requests came in. All fake accounts.
I had been considering leaving Twitter anyway. It would be simple to claim this is because of ‘abuse’ and ‘harassment’ and that does happen to me, a bit. But my issue is mostly about the signal-to-noise ratio getting completely out of whack. The quality of interaction on Twitter is not what it used to be. I am not being censored, silenced, or No Platformed. I am taking a break because I have no time for these ludicrous reindeer games. My books are where I express myself and have a platform; they are what matters to me.
Twitter is not all bad. I have learned more than I would otherwise have done about subjects such as trans rights, racism, and so much more. I have nothing but admiration for people who are using Twitter and other tools to address issues folks like me would never think twice about. The next generation of young activists does not worry me. On balance, I think the kids are alright.
I don’t have any suggestions for how to improve Twitter, other people with more knowledge are already talking about what needs to happen. But I know what I can do for myself and that is self-care. Wind down Twitter, take breaks, switch notifications to only people I follow. I am not at a stage in my career where hustling for exposure interests or delights me.
So where does that leave people who follow me who aren’t hate-follows, who don’t wish me ill, and enjoyed my occasional snarky input?
If you are someone who has enjoyed my tweets and you would like to support me, then here’s how you can continue to do that. I don’t have a tip jar, a public PayPal account, or a Patreon. I don’t sell ad space on my sites (and never have), and have provided a lot of free content — or content that is free to the reader, in any case — over the years. What I do have is books to sell. Seven of them, all told. I am not in this for hearts and RTs, I am in this to earn a living and pay my bills. Please buy my books; they are the most direct way to let me know you dig what I’m writing and think I should keep doing it. I would be happy and grateful if you did. A toast to you, dear reader, for making it this far.