Calling It What It Is: the Unspoken Validation of Online Abuse

Putting your {social} media where your mouth is, Part 1.

The text in this image is based on real comments and threats directed at Anita Sarkeesian. She documented these threats here. Illustration by David Cowles for Fast Company.

Around October 11th, 2016, notable Twitter power-user and diversity advocate Kaye M. (@gildedspine) made use of the #MuslimsReportStuff to declare her intentions to use her voter registration card to, well, vote. As intended.

Some time later, one of Twitter’s many, many trolls attacked her with a threat to follow her to her car and break her fingers—a felony, by the way, as per 18 U.S. Code § 594:

Whoever intimidates, threatens, coerces, or attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or to vote as he may choose, or of causing such other person to vote for, or not to vote for, any candidate for the office of President, Vice President, Presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, or Resident Commissioner, at any election held solely or in part for the purpose of electing such candidate, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.
(June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 720; Pub. L. 91–405, title II, § 204(d)(5), Sept. 22, 1970, 84 Stat. 853; Pub. L. 103–322, title XXXIII, § 330016(1)(H), Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2147.)

When it was pointed out to the troll that comments were a threat, linked to Twitter’s support account and all, the troll responded smugly that Twitter did not care—that he was a troll, and would be trolling “the shit” out of “you people”.

As sad as it may be, everyone who uses Twitter knows the truth—that troll is right. And when the trolls are aware of their own meta, what we have is a problem.

Shortly after the release of Ghostbusters, actress and comedian Leslie Jones (@lesdoggg) was made the victim of an abuse campaign that was so ugly, so aggressive, even her unstoppable optimism and toughness crumbled. After enduring slander, threats, and attacks, after asking Twitter support to clean out the trolls, she gave up—in tears, she posted a farewell message.

So what happened?

Twitter’s anti-harassment “advice” is tantamount to “block the person, and if you’re worried, talk to somebody else but not us”. Although a link is offered to contact support, repeated attempts to do so have often resulted in Twitter’s dismissal of hate-speech and harassment as something that doesn’t violate the Terms of Service.

When trolls flooded Leslie Jones’ mentions with racist, sexist abuse, Twitter responded to the reciprocal flood of reported tweets with the same message: none of the harassment, none of the racial slurs, epithets, or death and rape threats violated Twitter’s Terms of Service. No matter how ugly, how explicit, how violent, all of it was protected by Twitter’s approach to their business model.

In short, it wasn’t until the incredibly popular Leslie Jones left Twitter in a very, very public way did Twitter decide to ban the lead troll behind it all—a man who has been the focal point of many abuse gangs and had never been held accountable.

Until he finally attacked a celebrity.

I mean, attacked a celebrity and then the celebrity publicly left, causing an outcry among the greater media networks.

Twitter was just fine with it ’til the news got involved.

For early adopters of Twitter, the company’s unwillingness to address trolls is practically written into the unspoken contract users sign by virtue of logging in. We have long made our desire for abuse-protection—even just an anti-harassment policy that addresses flagrant abusers—and have waited almost a decade for Twitter to trickle out stopgap after stopgap.

Of course, while users were publicly demanding anti-harassment efforts, Twitter’s userbase was doubling, tripling, and more. Ads were introduced, promoted tweets, and Twitter’s bottom line was turning black with the ruthless calculus of a corporation that likes profit above all things.

You see, while Twitter was paying lip-service to its notoriously bad handling of abuse on its platform, it was also monetizing its users. The more people used it, promoted their tweets, clicked on ads, the more money it made—the more successful it looked, the more money it made. Its revolutionary role in historic events only helped, coining the term “twitter revolution” to describe the way in which the platform allowed for widespread communication during times that might otherwise limit it.

Suddenly, Twitter was the place to be, and for a majority of its users, there was nothing wrong with that.

Until the advent of the self-aware troll.

Infamous communities such as Reddit, 4chan, and other troll-spawning sites are more than familiar with the concept of self-aware trolls. Communities like these proved to be the ultimate troll training ground. As people were fleeing the venomous “Youtube comments”, avoiding the toxic comment sections of news sites, the trolls began to creep out from under the bridge, and found a whole new avenue of breeding ground in social media platforms.

Especially those platforms with loose concepts of anti-harassment.

The most “famous” of these, aside from Leslie Jones’ run in with the same crowd, was the rise of Gamergate in 2014. It’s a thing, you can read about it here. And no, it hasn’t gone away. What it’s done is take a new shape—a freeforall against women, LGBTQ+ folk, people with disabilities, people of color, and any other so-called “minority” they can sink their claws into.

As Twitter avoided the topic of anti-harassment, these trolls learned to hone their verbal abuse skills on a medium that provides 140 characters of sheer shit and the unlimited reach of its interconnected networks. Suddenly, trolls were connected like never before—and the cribbage board became a spreadsheet of “points”. Points gained for attacking this person, or that person. Twitter’s search must look like an FBI hate speech watchlist, not that Twitter appears to care.

Because in Twitter’s algorithms, use = money. In the same way that no publicity is bad publicity, all use is good use for the bottom line.

Oh, and did I mention that while users were receiving countless threats of rape, murder, violations, doxing, and more, Twitter itself was quietly handing over information to companies that sell that data to track activists and protestors? (So was Instagram and Facebook, other notoriously anti- anti-harassment for-profit corporations.)

So much for the “twitter revolution”.

I’m not here to call out Twitter. That’s been done, over and over. I’m not here to ask, tell, or force Twitter to change.

The company has made it very clear where they stand on the protection, safety and well-being of its users, and frankly, that is their choice. After all, they pay their taxes (ostensibly), and if they choose to encourage the same toxic environment that has us all avoiding Youtube comments and has news sites shuttering comment sections, that’s their right.

It sucks. But it is.

What I am here to do is ask you—you, right now, reading this—what you’re doing.

By now, it’s relatively known that to engage on Twitter is to swim with sharks. If you’re a person of color, a woman, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Jewish, disabled, or even just happen to have a strong opinion that clashes with the usual privileged view of trolls and Trump supporters, you are swimming with sharks while wearing a meat suit of bloody raw cow.

So it’s time for real talk. And it won’t be pretty. It probably won’t make you feel good. It doesn’t make me feel good. But maybe it’s time we all look at the hill we’re choosing to die on and ask ourselves why.

Here’s the Facts:

  1. Twitter does not care to institute an anti-harassment policy of any actionable kind.
  2. Users are targeted every day by trolls and assholes who think it’s their gods-given right to abuse them.
  3. Twitter does nothing to punish, remove, or censure these abusers. In some cases, they selectively remove/ban accounts, but there seems to be no unifying factor.
  4. Most of us are battered day after day, dragged into a cycle of abuse that requires nothing more than speaking out loud on a platform designed for just that.
  5. Twitter collected data on activists and protestors (and probably most people of color even tangentially related to #BLM or revolutions of any kind, because I honestly can’t imagine they’d not) and gave it companies who use that data to track them.


Why are you staying?

I know there’s a lot of nuance here. It’s hard to leave a place that was, for so long, the best place to be; to leave a place that has allowed us to create networks practically unheard of before the platform’s advent. I know that it can create an emotional, even visceral, feeling of ownership, of possessiveness, of attachment to activism and signal, even of simple refusal to bend. “I was here first,” you might say, or, “I will not be shouted out from this place!”

I can’t even imagine the ripples and echoes of modern and historical racial violence, forced relocation, and more. I am privileged enough in my whiteness to only empathize best as I can.

But I also want you to consider the fact that what you are partaking in is a corporation that has decided its users are money, and the more active the users, the more the money. They have encouraged trolls to propagate, while sending email after email telling us that rape threats, anti-semitic tweets, death threats, and more don’t violate their Terms of Service.

They have stood by and watched as many of us are driven into the ground, battered emotionally and verbally.

“Just block them,” they say, but for every troll I block, that troll is going to go abuse, harass and batter someone else. For every troll, there are five more waiting.

How is that at all helpful?

It’s not, is the short answer. What’s more, by continuing to bring interest and activity to the platform, we are silently agreeing that as bad as the abuse is, we will accept it.

So here’s where I make a stand:

By contributing to a platform that monetizes users and does nothing to halt the advancement of harassment, we are contributing to the culture of abuse. Full stop.

When we say we hate it and say we don’t support the cycle of harassment and abuse, when we see that Twitter does nothing to stop the abuse or protect the abused, and we continue to pay Twitter by using its service, we are proving that we don’t care enough to make a change. We validate the existence of abuse (assuming it happens to somebody else) so long as we get what we need.

In light of that, Twitter sees no reason to change, either.

But I do care. I care enough that I can no longer contribute to the perpetual cycle of abuse and harassment. I can no longer support a company who not only tacitly encourages the activity by trolls with lack of action, but also feeds its more vulnerable users to that gauntlet.

So, I ask again: why are you staying?

What is keeping you in that battlefield? What do you hope to win from a company who does not care about you?

“All my friends are here.”

I have been around a long time. I have seen exodus after exodus—Livejournal to Blogger to MySpace to Facebook to Twitter. When the facilities no longer care for the accessibility, use and safety of its user base, it is time to move on. Networks have flourished and fallen and flourished again.

Your friends, should you speak to them and invite them and make it clear where you stand, are likely to band around you and at least try new options. Because to do otherwise is tantamount to telling you, “I’m sorry you’re being abused, but I don’t care enough to change.”

I do care. So much so that I will no longer support a corporation that treats you like meat for the grinder.

“All my professional contacts are here.”

I’ve heard from folks that they feel trapped in Twitter, as if by giving it up on it, they won’t get as much publicity, awareness, connection with their agents, editors, readers, more.

Now, sure, that’s not easy. In many cases, agents, editors, professional industry people, don’t see terrible amounts of awfulness flung at them. It’s easy to look at Twitter as the most obvious and most effective path to user interaction and the sharing of one’s self with one’s audience.

But have you written to your professional folk and explained the situation?

I will. As soon as I’m done here, I am sending this letter to both my agent and my publishing house explaining why I’m done with Twitter. Why I am moving to another platform, and why I feel it would serve them well to cultivate an appearance on that platform, too.

Change starts with you.

“Twitter makes it easy to stay connected.”

In one way, that’s true. It sure is easy to just tweet 140 characters and get immediate feedback, to look at the constant stream of your timeline and feel connected.

But as you’re doing that, you, your friends, your favorite authors, the strangers over there, are getting abused over and over. As you’re Tweeting, there are too many people afraid to Tweet what they really think, afraid to speak, afraid to step on a social landmine that has hate-mobs ready to launch at a moment’s notice.

By it’s very unwillingness to address the cycle of abuse, Twitter has ensured that its users are not getting a genuine experience. You are conversing with individuals who have been threatened, one way or another, into being less than what they are.

I can no longer support the emotional, verbal and mental abuse of the people I want to maintain genuine connections with. I can no longer ignore it, just as I cannot ignore the evidence of physical abuse when I see it.

But while I could call the police for one, Twitter has made it clear that they do not care about the other.

Again: They will do nothing to halt harassment. And in fact, they are making money and gaining users by perpetuating that harassment.

Is it easy to leave? To build a new network? No. It’s not. It’s hard and it takes effort. But on the other hand, I don’t want to look myself in the eye—look Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Kaye M., Kelley, Laura Silverman, and any number of my various POC, LGBTQ+, disabled, and/or female contacts and friends—and say that I chose to accept the Twitter-supported abuse inflicted upon them because it was too hard for me to change.

What side of this do you want to be on?

“There is nowhere else to go!”

There is. And I continue this particular topic in part two of this essay.

“I should have the right to shop/exist/be where I want on public domain sources!”

True story. You should. You do.

Unfortunately, that right is often shadowed by the willingness or unwillingness of the domain owners to care for your wellbeing.

Ultimately, the choice is yours.

I choose not to facilitate Twitter’s abuse-driven money scheme. Let my lack of presence speak as to my values.

And yes, friends, I am aware that Medium was co-founded by Twitter founders. What I have to ask in that regard is simple: why does Medium seem to have much less of an abuse problem than Twitter does?

It’s almost as if deliberate decisions are being made. Or perhaps Medium just doesn’t have the ease-of-trolling that Twitter does?

Back in 2012, fast food chain Chik-fil-A got into some trouble when its founder boldly acknowledged the fact that the chain was anti-LGBTQ+ and gave generously to anti-gay foundations.

People around the country lobbied for a boycott of its stores, and the national outrage was so intense that protests sprang up at many locations.

Nick Tomecek, Northwest Florida Daily News

It has always been easy to wander by a fast food joint and order dinner (and certainly Chik-fil-A has an appeal even protestors seems to enjoy). It’s certainly a thing to say that one’s friends would meet up at Chik-fil-A, that one should be able to eat wherever one wants.

And all of this is true.

But in 2012, people made the difficult choice and boycotted the chain.

In response, the company made the decision to drastically scale back its anti-LGBTQ+ giving. It was a solid promise to a new Chik-fil-A, and as time marched on, the protestors returned to eating at a place that had taken the correct steps to making a better partnership with its customers.

Well, until everybody stopped watching, anyway.

Which makes me believe that when a company’s true colors are so obviously displayed, over and over, is it likely that they will ultimately change?

Chik-fil-A did not. Twitter, despite lip-service to the concept of anti-abuse policy, has not. Facebook seems as inclined to remove and ban acceptable material as it does to not ban unacceptable material.

So why were we so hellbent on protesting the overarching funding of anti-LGBTQ+ foundations, but can’t seem to walk away from a platform that monetizes the abuse of its users?

If this were a relationship, we would be staging an intervention. Complete with options, alternatives and resources for the abused.

Every person has to make their own choices in life. There is the ideal world we want to live in, the world we do live in, and the decisions we make.

Ultimately, we can only be responsible over what we do. If I have learned nothing else, I have learned that I can only control my actions, my choices, and my reactions.

To that end, I have chosen to withdraw my support from Twitter. I have chosen to stop perpetuating their monetized cycle of harassment and abuse. I have chosen to remove my monetized presence from their profits.

I have long ago come to understand that you cannot change the mind of somebody closed to the possibility. Nothing we say will change Trump. Nothing we do will keep trolls who don’t care from harassing us, and nothing we report, ask for, or call-out will make Twitter put our well-being above those who give each other points for the amount of trauma they cause.

As a business, as an entity, as a “person”, Twitter has decided that the vile harassment of its users is acceptable.

I’ve no interest in participating in that. Not only do I not want to take part, I don’t want people to get paid on the back of abuse that I tacitly contribute to with my presence, my silence.

No matter who you are, you should not be required to put up with abuse as “par for the course”. Being on social media does not mean that you asked for it. Being public does not mean that harassment is your burden.

You deserve better.

And you deserve to be online in a space that doesn’t monetize your anger, your trauma, your pain.

So, what will you support?

K. C. Alexander is the author of Necrotech, an aggressive transhumanist sci-fi, and the writer of various short stories at Fireside Fiction and Geeky Giving. She is an artist, an outer god, obsessed with washi tape, and will not tolerate your shit.