A Letter

Dick Costelo admits he sucks. Or, more specifically, he admits that Twitter sucks at dealing with abuse, that he takes full responsibility for said sucking, and that he will make an effort to suck less in the future. Of course, he does not say how he will do that, and the leaked memo detailing his admission includes the sentence, “We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them,” suggesting that he hasn’t entirely come to terms with what dealing with abuse even means. “Kicking people off right and left,” implies a renewed committment to centralized content moderation—a dubious policy given the size of the platform and the frankly complicated decision-making involved in regulating speech.

Which isn’t to say that Twitter or other platforms ought to be given a free pass on abuse. Rather, it’s a place where they need to cede power to the users’ themselves—by making it possible for communities to build tools and practices that suit their needs, which are more varied and diverse than any company-led program could manage. The mechanics of this kind of support needn’t be complicated: an open API for developers to build tools and funding for community-led development programs, including events that make space for real conversation about the problem of online abuse. Critically these programs need to investigate more than mere technological solutions to harassment—which are myriad and important, but insufficient to address the underlying cultural issues that inspire and propagate harassment and which can never be completely shut down by tech alone.

Of course, when I tweeted about my lack of faith in Twitter’s ability to effectively deal with abuse, a stranger replied that I should “shut up and suck a dick.”

What galvanizes someone to say such things? Lindy West—a writer for GQ, The Guardian, and others—wrote a story for This American Life in which she interviewed a self-admitted troll: a man who created a fake Twitter account impersonating West’s dead father in order to attack her. West wrote about how, of all the threats she received, that one in particular struck her hard. Miraculously, her admission got through to the man who created the account. He came forward to apologize to her and promise that his days as a troll were behind him, making a $50 contribution to a cancer fund in her father’s name as a show of good faith. But why had he attacked her in the first place, she asks? He says,

Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They’re saying it loud. And I think that—and I think, for me, as well, it’s threatening at first.

In other words, women’s authority and power diminishes the power of men, therefore women must be silenced.

In addition to the patently obvious misogyny, implicit in the belief that women’s speech is a threat is the notion that authority is a limited resource, only so much of it to go around—that as women gain that authority, men must lose it. But I see no evidence for treating authority like oil—to be mined and fought over—rather than air—available and free to all. In fact it strikes me as something of a pathology to believe that one’s own life is diminished by the success of others. It’s just as easy to believe the reverse: that improving the lives of those around you improves your own.

Regardless, expecting Twitter-the-company to somehow choke out or even measurably reduce the effects of misogyny on the platform seems about as likely to work as expecting the cops to have an impact on street harassment. In an interview with the Marshall Project, Naomi Murakawa rejects arguments that cops are solely responsible for our current era of mass incarceration and instead lays the blame upon our collective feet. In particular, she points to the idea that police should be called upon to solve all of society’s ills—from homelessness to mental health issues to drug addiction—as one among several factors driving incarceration rates. She asks,

If we couldn’t just call on the police to deal with all of these things that we think of as tedious or unpleasant, what would we have to build? That’s where we need to take our social reforms.

Likewise, I think, that’s how we need to think of dealing with abuse online. If we can’t rely on Twitter—and despite Dick’s assurances this week, I don’t think we can—what can we do? And by we I mean all of us: not only the likely targets of abuse, but the many people who witness it and encourage it with their silence. Lindy West wonders aloud if the fact that she got through to one troll means she could get through to all of them. West is one person; on her own, she almost certainly couldn’t have an impact at that scale. But with all of us on her side? Maybe.