In which we kill the messenger: is Twitter dystopian?

In the past week there has been a lot of talk about sexism in science. I don’t want to rehash any of the arguments (though you can hear some of my views on Radio 4 and in the Telegraph). One might summarize it like this, just to set the stage:

1. Some silly, ill-thought-out comments were made by a high-profile scientist in a very public venue, as an attempt at humor

2. The comments were shared widely via social media

3. Many people thought the comments, even if delivered in jest, were damaging to the cause of parity; others didn’t see what all the fuss was about

4. Much commentary ensued, both in mainstream and social media channels as well as in emailing lists and in the tea rooms of academia and beyond

5. Perhaps predictably, the backlash instigated a backlash, which in turn spawned a counter-backlash, and a counter-counter-backlash…so on, as the ripples radiate further afield and begin their inevitable dissipation into the vast, short-term memoried milieu of the media sea

The current reigning trope seems to be about how social media is a spiteful and devastating weapon, a kangaroo court that can decimate a reputation in minutes flat. A piece yesterday in the Guardian ascribed to Twitter “innate cruelty” and “savage power”. But while social media may at times have this effect, it can also be a strong force for good – a conduit for protest, a way to share knowledge with a swift efficiency never before possible in the history of the world. It can boost a lone cry escaping the censorship of a repressed regime, or a small-town mindset, or a lonely city of millions. With social media, even the most insignificant voice might be amplified so that all can hear. So is tarring the entire medium with one brush really fair?

First off, everyone will see their own version of social media: my timeline is not the same as your timeline. The people I follow might be more reasonable that the timeline of a troll. Can we assign one modus operandi to a medium fractured into a billion personal pathways?

From my filtered end of it, the commentary was as varied in tone as human nature itself: measured and balanced; or humorous; or outraged; or bewildered; or hostile. Some called for heads to roll; some called for sympathy; some called for people to lighten up; some called for censoring all feminist response; some used the opportunity to widen and refresh a discussion of the underlying issues. (My step-daughter’s science class even used the affair as a basis for a lesson.) Social media was neither good nor bad; it was simply media, a channel for people to air their views in a global discussion. Do we kill the messenger, and vilify the people who had genuine concerns and wished to exert their right to air them? Or do we celebrate the fact that Twitter, Facebook and its ilk can help everyday people, not just the privileged few, make their cases public – the good, the bad and the ugly?

Actions have consequences. Ill-judged, damaging comments will provoke response, and the people who make them, for better or for worse, need to understand that there may well be unpleasant repercussions – even inappropriately harsh ones. The responses will be varied. But the people responding have a right to be heard. Free debate is not ‘dystopian’- even when it goes against your opinion, or unfairly damages a reputation. This is the nature of free speech. We reap its benefits, and we also, if we’re unlucky, feel the sting of its tail.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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16 Responses to In which we kill the messenger: is Twitter dystopian?

  1. amy says:

    People who are incensed about the Hunt twitterstorm have been curiously silent on the subject of twitter trolls stalking and threatening women with rape and murder, or gone into paeans to free speech. It seems to me a principled approach is fairly obvious here: Nobody is going to protect you from having the entire internet turn around and jeer at you for saying something unbelievably stupid from the mountaintop, but if you start tossing around slurs you and your comments are barred, and if you make threats your info will on request be turned over to police. That’s it.

    Now if you suggest such a thing, you’ll get a lot of guys dismissing it out of hand as impossible, yet the New York Times seems to manage it every single day in its own comments. It isn’t possible to publish an uncivil comment there. No swear words, even. And I hear it’s a well-known paper that gets some traffic.

    I had an illuminating conversation with the MIT prof who started his own hubbub last winter by saying that feminists had so terrorised him, as a lad, that he’d asked to be chemically castrated with antidepressants so he wouldn’t even have to think about looking at a girl wrong and being accused of rape. As it turned out, what terrified him these days wasn’t death threats. He was quite sure that he was well-protected against things like that, that he could go to the proper authorities and be well-protected and get the appropriate tea/sympathy. It was the threat of people’s turning their backs on him that really frightened him.

    Which left me blinking at the screen. Two nights ago, instead of going to the mall (we need summer clothes), I took my daughter to the gym. Good choice, because while we were on the track, a mall cop who’d been reprimanded for sexually harassing mall employees went home, got his Glock, came back, and shot and killed the 20-year-old children’s-museum employee who’d made the last complaint. He’d been stalking her and leaving her notes for weeks, and she did go to the appropriate authorities, and he gunned her right down in the food court.

    I am a little less than impressed by twitter-outcriers who can’t manage to focus on the fact that women do actually have to take harassment and threats seriously, and are instead mostly worried that a Tim Hunt will feel ostracised. Which is not to say that both can’t be taken care of, but this notion of “free speech means I get to say whatever I want (until I feel threatened with ostracisation by proxy)” has to go, and some sort of rules of civility and ordinary policing have to obtain.

  2. Brian Clegg says:

    I think on the whole you are right, but it was interesting reading Jon Ronson’s ‘So You’ve Been Publically Shamed’, which describes several people who didn’t just get Twitter abuse, but lost their jobs, families (and in one case, I think, committed suicide) as a result of a Twitter storm.

    I’m all in favour of free speech, but what he describes, and I think I’ve experienced (not on the receiving end, but as a participant) is a kind of enjoyable ‘let’s pile in and pick this person to pieces because they dared to say something I don’t agree with’ effect that probably isn’t healthy for anyone.

    The same goes for the comment streams in the Guardian/Observer (where I have been on the receiving end, and I suspect you have too), which I find surprisingly vitriolic for such caring, sharing newspapers. As far as I can see there are people whose only source of entertainment is to try to pick apart what someone else writes, rather than to do something constructive themselves.

  3. Brian Clegg says:

    P.S. I was conscious of the irony of leaving a comment…

  4. I’m not a fan of hounding and bullying either, Brian. But hounding and bullying have been going on since the dawn of time. Social media makes it easier and quicker, but still, it remains a conduit for unpleasantness – not the unpleasantness itself. And I think it does a disservice to people who had legitimate concerns about Hunt’s comments to just lump them all into the ‘politically correct knee-jerk Twitter lynch mob’ bin. It bothers me that in some of these peoples’ view, a woman cannot raise even respectful, balanced concerns about inappropriate comments without being branded a sense-of-humorless Feminazi.

    If you’re going to start censoring Twitter, who is going to judge what’s a reasonable comment and what is too harsh? Is your view of reasonable the same as mine?

    Maybe better if everyone just takes responsibility for their own actions and maybe (as I have done with the comment threads you allude to) develop a thicker skin. Meanwhile, at least in the UK, there are some limits to what you are allowed to say (although it’s different in the States). I think those limits are sound, but personally I wish people could just be more damned polite to one another, it true. And there I think we do agree.

  5. xykademiqz says:

    Ill-judged, damaging comments will provoke response, and the people who make them, for better or for worse, need to understand that there may well be unpleasant repercussions – even inappropriately harsh ones.
    Free debate is not ‘dystopian’- even when it goes against your opinion, or unfairly damages a reputation.

    I don’t know… Social media are pretty volatile. I am pretty sure that it makes some people very wary of what they say and some don’t participate at all because the negative response can be entirely outsized. I personally find Twitter downright terrifying.

  6. Jim Woodgett says:

    Good take Jenny. Social media is an equal opportunity form of media. It has its abusers & is particularly fraught by people’s draw to “piling on” (learnt early in our social interactions). But look at the privileges it helps to level. It is remarkable to see those of indisputable privilege (whether earned or inherited) whine that their words have been taken out of context. The context, I might add, of a pulpit given to them by their “stature” that covers amplified influence. That they find it can bite back only after they’ve abused its power, is eye-opening.

    Society has an innate habit of promoting its heroes. That society may maul its heroes when they disappoint is more often the rule than the exception. That some do not realise they are “looked up to” or that they “didn’t ask for this profile” is no defense. We have great expectations.

    [Comedians are perhaps the only people to whom we give limited license to be outrageous. Humour is a safety valve & can provoke, reveal & challenge our inner prejudices. But claiming to speak in jest of a very real & experienced bias from a position of protected influence deserves objection, as leaving it untouched provides oxygen to further promulgation of such inequity.]

  7. @xykademiqz I’m sure it does put some folks off. I am always careful what I say (polite; trying to see both sides) and after umpety-ump years on Twitter and blogs I’ve yet to fall afoul of any disproportionate response. It may not be the medium for people who like to shoot their mouths off first and think later, for sure!

    @ Jim – yes, it’s the price you pay for fame of any description. Nobels are a peculiar lot: they weren’t necessarily courting fame, and no doubt many of them never wanted to be role models in the first place. But like it or not, they are.

  8. Blarkon says:

    Meet the new Overlords, same as the old Overlords – just re-badged as being “more Democratic” and “only paying out against those that deserve it”. Because, as long as we thing that the people at the sharp end of the pointy sticks deserve it, all is right with the world.

  9. Stephen McGann says:

    I find it ironic that the media stream with perhaps the greatest reputation for “innate cruelty” and “savage power” is the print media itself (see Leveson et al)). However, this is centuries old and apparently a keystone of Enlightenment values. No-one would suggest for a moment that this powerful and well-drilled ‘lynch mob’ be disbanded. And of course this media is controlled, rather than being an open public forum like Twitter. The press is a rather powerful messenger that nobody would dare to shoot.

    As someone whose work brings them into the public sphere, I’ve felt its nasty sting many times. Yet I don’t seek to blame others for my own words or actions – or for my professional responsibility and exposure. If I’m publicly wrong – and by God I can be – I expect this to have consequences. It’s not Faustian and it’s not martyrdom – it’s just the cost of being a respectful grown-up in the public eye.

  10. Agree, Stephen. Others have pointed out that the print media has a vested competitive interest against social media, which is stealing a lot of its thunder. And they have enthusiastically piled up on the “Twitter feminists got him fired” bandwagon – in many cases, seemingly wilfully allowing their readers to think that his lost (entirely symbolic, second honorary position) was a real job.

  11. cromercrox says:

    I hope I am not oversimplifying your message by saying it all boils down to the message, not the medium. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with social media just because some people use it to bully, shame, belittle and settle scores, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with telephones because some people use them to make dirty phone calls.

    However, I do think that the media do help shape the message, and this is where Tim Hunt (and many others) fell foul – what was meant to be an offhand comment, leaving aside the fact that it was in very poor taste – can soon get magnified out of all proportion solely by virtue of the medium.

    The problem with social media is that it’s very easy for people to sound off stridently about things they know nothing about.

    I unfollowed a lot of people during the recent UK General Election campaign because of their propensity to ‘shout’ slogans which I knew for a fact were misleading. ‘It’s not as simple as that…,’ I wanted to say. Or ‘it depends…’. In the end I was frustrated by the constraints of the media, which are more welcoming of slogans rather than in-depth argument.

    I am sure you’ll think I am being elitist for saying this, but, well, that can’t be helped – just because people are freer than ever before to say anything they like and broadcast it at the touch of a button doesn’t make the substance of what they have to say any more useful or valuable than they would have been were they just a casual comment in a conversation in a pub. I am minded of the following ancient epigram, which shows that things have not really changed.

    Swans sing before they die. ‘Twere no bad thing
    Should certain persons die before they sing.

    This could apply with equal facility to Tim Hunt’s comments as well as those who contributed to the subsequent barrage of opprobrium.

  12. I don’t think you’re being elitist, Henry – you’ve made good points and we don’t really disagree as far as I can see. My main thesis is exactly as you’ve stated it – the messenger is not to blame for what people say. I’m sure it was ever thus (love the swan quote). Newspaper letter columns helped elevate pub conversation to a wider audience (think of good old ‘Irate of Tunbridge Wells’), and Twitter just does this same thing but to a much larger extent. I guess where we might differ a bit is that I don’t think we can try to moderate the messages (aside from the obvious illegal ones that commit illegal hate/terror crimes or libel), because who judges what’s polite enough and what isn’t? Just let the wind blow and take what good of it that you can, and try to ignore the rest – and avoid getting into a situation that might put one at the sharp end. It’s not an easy question, but I think bullies will always be bullies.

  13. rpg says:

    “…avoid getting into a situation that might put one at the sharp end.”

    Ay, there’s the rub. The problem is that valid concerns and opinions can, and do, get shouted down—or at least, folk end up saying “Why bother?”

    Case in point:

    People like me are lucky: we can cope with the abuse and give as good as we get. Others are not so lucky. How do we help the bullied?

  14. amy says:

    Richard – there are a bunch of ways.

    One, by dealing directly with incivility online. This will be a long row, but I’m convinced it’ll happen because a good deal of internet is already useless thanks to viciousness and poo-flinging, and the stuff spreads if not contained. So talk about it to legislators, make an issue of it, and be clear that this isn’t about disagreements or stifling the free exchange of ideas but about threats and hate speech and a demonstrable public health problem, namely suicide. Tim Berners-Lee, incidentally, has called on governments to moderate online savagery, and I’d think he might be encouraged to be more vocal about that.

    Two, maintain perspective and encourage both victims and employers to maintain perspective. Most of the shouters will forget the entire episode within days. They don’t know the bullied or even what it’s all about; they’re reacting to keywords. If necessary for peace of mind, lower the person’s laptop lid and click it firmly shut, and lead the person outside for a reminder of how much of the world is not people on twitter.

    Three, when things have calmed a bit, actually consider what people were yelling about and see if there’s anything to it. Usually there is. I get yelled at all the time by second-amendment kooks, not to mention by comments horrors who like to play “murder the single mother” in what they imagine to be some sort of disqus-based video game. Many of the 2nd-amendment kooks actually have real worries; I just don’t share their views or priorities. The comments horrors have other problems. But in neither case are they actually talking to me most of the time. They don’t know me.

    The bit about businesses calming down is worth some public discussion, I think. Obviously a twitterstorm looks terrible for them, but if they can gather a little sense about it, they’ll find it’s mostly transient and they don’t have to behave as though there’s a bee following them. But that’s something that needs public discussion and then a lot of exceptionally boring industry conference panels and like that. With lawyers. You know, “So Your Manager’s Made an Ass of Himself Online and the Internet Wants You to Fire Him” or something like that.

    About two and three — I think maybe a lot of this prep needs building in. The idea, however unconsciously held, that the entire world loves and supports you is probably not a helpful one to have, and the fear of complete strangers’ disapproval is the sort of thing that gets you into real trouble online, where almost everyone’s a complete stranger who can come right up and talk directly to you. I think that shock — the coming undone because of two days’ pillorying on twitter — has a lot to do with beliefs about the world’s interest and support on a good day, and it might be as well to teach kids that even when the twits are yelling they’re yelling about something that isn’t you. You might have, stupidly, contributed to the something, but it’s not actually about you, yourself, because they don’t know or care about you, yourself. And that the best response really is to go outside for a run and think, nondefensively, about what the yelling’s actually about, which is what I’m going to do right now.

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