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Twitter’s Troll Troubles

Published June 22nd, 2017 | Blog Series: Social Media Turds

As you may have heard, microblogging service Twitter launched a redesign of their app and website late last week. Despite some complaints and others who think it’s edgy to compliment the work of a large global brand, this update is nothing radical. They’ve refreshed the iconography, softened some edges and adjusted the fonts. The website still functions in more or less the same way and the app has had a couple minor UI changes.

But here’s what these changes didn’t address: Twitter’s ongoing problem with trolling, harassment and literal Nazis. This is an issue the update before attempted to solve by suspending, restricting usage and hiding the replies of accounts that tweet naughty swear words, regardless of their original intent or context. Combined with Twitter’s crowd-sourced moderation (expecting users to report tweets they find offensive) this has led to a number of fairly prominent accounts being suspended, often for name-calling or mocking people who are doing more acceptable things like advocating genocide.

And even though there are apparently some people who think early adoption of rounded corners on text inputs would have stopped trolling on the platform before it even started (because minor design flourishes are actually magic that can influence people’s long held political opinions) let’s just assume the redesign won’t be changing much in terms of what people are already posting.

Not really one for photos or friends, I’m less inclined to procrastinate with Instagram or Facebook. Tweets are near worthless; throwaway thoughts, dumb jokes or images. A series of nice, albeit brief, distractions that aren’t (usually) surrounded by several ugly baby or workout photos posted by people I pretend to like. Twitter eventually cemented itself as my favourite time-sink when I stumbled across several members of the niche gaggle of shitposters and comedians often collectively referred to as “Weird Twitter” (much to their disgust). Being a young angry man online ripe for the radicalising, Weird Twitter’s left-leaning satirical nihilism and hostility spoke my language.

People in this community were some of the first to realise the ridiculous potential social media actually has. And that’s not in some brand-boosting hashtag engagement sort of way. A human hivemind is inherently dark – most people collectively enjoy being in on a joke even if it means humiliating or upsetting others. For a perfect example, look at last month’s disastrous Walker’s campaign which saw an enthusiastic Gary Lineker holding up photos of famous murderers and paedophiles while exclaiming “Nice selfie!”.

This attitude is exemplified by “internet joke idiot” Jon Hendren. After signing up early with the username @fart, he took advantage of what became a sizeable following to engineer his own amusing farcical scenarios, often involving celebrities. He started a campaign to get the lead singer of Smash Mouth to eat several eggs, he helped send Pitbull to a remote island in Alaska via a Walmart Facebook contest and more recently he appeared on a news report about Edward Snowden’s Twitter account to discuss why he thought we should stop victimising Edward Scissorhands.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden live from Russia

Compare those triumphs with two recent stunts that have gone viral on Twitter: Kathy Griffin holding up a decapitated Trump head and a woman interrupting a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which the title character was replaced with a Trump facsimile. Not only are these incredibly lame and boring but both are clearly publicity stunts done for nothing but self promotion and/or grifting.

If you believe that social media can influence opinion – either by group thought or dissemination of information, not rounded corners – then a spate of bans affecting mostly left-leaning weirdos and comedians for calling racists on their bullshit is not insignificant. Thanks to what seems like an increased right wing presence on Twitter, possibly attracted and emboldened by President Daddy, stupid terms no one cared about like “white genocide” are now widely disseminated and discussed. I’m definitely biased but if I’m no longer allowed to call someone like this a “fucking idiot” via an offhand tweet, then what was this big social media experiment in aid of in the first place? Why are their views protected while my views about them being abhorrent baby men are unacceptable?

For some, it goes beyond a simple Twitter suspension. Even though we live in a time where accountability for anyone with actual power, money or influence is practically non-existent, there’s an upswell of self righteous people and nerds on Twitter demanding random organisations hold their employees accountable for their views. I think we may have underestimated the impact X Factor/Got Talent style variety shows and equivalents have had on our collective thinking. It now appears some people think it’s their responsibility to vote the people they deem unworthy out of their jobs and careers and presumably into poverty.

Believe it or not, this happened to me last month. After some bored and unfunny replies to a tweet about Ian Brady’s hair – in which I ironically suggested the Moors murders were just his “mistakes” – a concerned citizen contacted Habanero seeking retribution for me “making light of murder”. While I have been accused of being a master Twitter troll, this sort of thing is really only justifiable when you do things like tweet genuinely disgusting Hitlery things to your large moist audience of balding EDL members (or American equivalent). Context is important and if the original intention of your post was to make an offhand ironic joke – not, for instance, sincerely advocate the mass internment and/or exterminations of Muslims – then I think it’s fair you should get a pass. Luckily, Habanero has decided not to sack me.

Knife through chest
What I really deserve

It’s difficult not to take these continued suspensions and restrictions as Twitter actively protecting hate speech while condemning those who hate the haters. Trolling on Twitter used to have a sense of whimsy. It once felt like a platform populated by and mostly for errant tricksters, eloquent writers and hentai enthusiasts, not a breeding ground for right wing sycophants. And while admittedly some nuance is lost when people start telling racists to “fuck off” or “eat shit”, when they’re complaining about “white genocide” and slashing people’s throats, what reason is there to be civil? And why is it Twitter’s job to make us?

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Steven Clark

by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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