Why the cyber-bullying bill is a lie

I’ve been slacking off on the blog this year, gang. Ever since December of last year, I’ve been meaning to blog my thoughts about Bill C-13, which the Canadian government has dubbed the “Cyber-bullying Bill”.

Chances are if you follow this blog, you know that I care a lot about the issue of revenge porn (i.e. sharing intimate images of somebody without their consent). Late last year, after an opposition MP introduced a private members bill to prohibit revenge porn, our Conservative government introduced their own. It is very likely this legislation will pass.

Since I’ve been arguing for a year that we need criminal legislation to address this issue, you’d think I would be happy about this development. I am not. Find out why by watching this episode of CANADALAND with Jesse Brown, in which I lay out the issues with the so-called “Cyber-bullying Bill,” Bill C-13. SPOILER ALERT: they should really be calling it the Surveillance Bill.

Don’t drain the moat, Twitter. #RestoreTheBlock

Google definition of "block" as a verb

What does “block” really mean, anyway? A cursory Googling bears out the definition above: “make the movement or flow in […] difficult or impossible,” “put an obstacle in the way of,” “restrict the use or conversion of,” or “hinder or stop the movement or action of.”  According to Twitter, on the other hand, “block” just means “blindfold oneself.”

Twitter’s block function has never been perfect. In the old days, blocking a user did not prevent them from tagging you in tweets or signing out of Twitter to view your tweets (if your profile was public). However, blocking someone at least used to kick them from following you and added an extra step if they wished to continue accessing your tweets. Twitter’s newly announced changes to their block function mean that this step is no longer necessary; blocking a user does not prevent them from following you, viewing your timeline while signed in, or interacting with you in any way.

As Zerlina Maxwell points out, this means that harassers can now retweet a user who has blocked them and incite their own followers to join in the fun. It also means that the only way to prevent an abusive user from following you is to set your account to “private.” Many astute Twitter users like Hijabinist and GradientLair.com‘s Trudy and have pointed out that this creates a chilling, silencing effect for the voices of marginalized folks who are most vulnerable to harassment and least represented in mainstream discourse.

There are many reasons to set one’s account to “private” and it’s a personal choice. But is it really a “choice” when folks who deal with online violence like stalking, threats and harassment are told that going private is the only way to control – at any level – their contact with an aggressor? Is fair to remove people’s access to a public platform, and all its tangible social, personal, political and economic benefits, for reasons they cannot control (i.e. another person’s abusive behaviour)? Some people’s jobs revolve around the ability to tweet publicly. Should they change careers because of another person’s abusive behaviour?

In cases of abusive behaviour, the old policy at least placed the (admittedly mild) consequences in the abuser’s court: “you now must face an extra hurdle to access this person’s content, and you will not have the ability to retweet it.” The current policy places consequences for abusive behaviour in the target’s court: “deal with this person’s stalking or cease your participation in a major online public square while your aggressor continues to enjoy a public platform.” There is something about this that smacks profoundly of blaming the victim.

Unsurprisingly, no shortage of Twitter users (almost entirely men so far) have come at me with pompous assertions that it makes sense to loosen the policy because of the old block function’s shortcomings. I can’t even begin to address the flaws with the argument that “Harassers have always been able to log out and view your tweets, so it makes total sense to remove the necessity of logging out at all”, though Ana Mardoll does a decent job of it. The old policy was not a fortified wall protecting against online harassment, but it was a moat of sorts. Easily passable, sure, but many would look at the inconvenience of getting their clothes wet and say “ugh, to hell with it.”

Some folks have suggested the change is benevolent because it clears up a false sense of security some people may have felt by blocking someone. But why wouldn’t Twitter simply clear up the misinformation about the old block function? Twitter seems to have no problem being clear about what blocking does and doesn’t do now, after the policy change. Could they not have made a public statement to ensure users were aware of the old block function’s limitations, instead of applying a change that favours abusers? The old block function may never have been a fortified wall, but that does not in any way justify draining the moat.

For me, privacy rests on two key principles: consent (I know what I am getting into and have the opportunity to say no) and control (to share what I want with whom I want and prevent contact with who I wish). If my only opportunity to say “no” is to say nothing at all, that’s not really consent. If my only opportunity for control is to disappear, that’s not really control.

Goldie Taylor hits the nail on the head when she says “Privacy should not require fully closed or fully open. All social networks should be ‘selectively permeable’ with user control.” General PSA for mansplainers telling me that “Twitter is a public space! Either deal with being vulnerable to anyone who wants to contact you, go private or GTFO”: online privacy does not have to be an all-or-nothing game. And an imperfect mode of personal protection is not a valid argument for no mode of personal protection at all.

The new Twitter block policy is yet another example of how institutions and organizations (including social media platforms) typically reflect dominant societal views. In this case, the dominant societal view is that the onus for preventing abusive behaviour rests with the person being abused. This view holds especially true when the target of abuse is marginalized on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality, physical or mental dis/ability, gender expression, etc. Perhaps if more of these traditionally marginalized voices were involved in conceiving and building the tools we use to communicate with one another, those dominant societal views might change. But it seems that Twitter has a long way to go in that regard. In the meantime, we’re left with a “choice” between total vulnerability and forced silence.

Update: In response to public outcry, Twitter reversed the changes discussed in this article. Massive props to Suey Park, who created the #RestoreTheBlock hashtag, and everyone who participated.

Twitter, rape threats and garden variety misogyny

As you can imagine, I have THOUGHTS and FEELINGS about the campaign of rape threats against Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy, and Twitter’s response. I’ve been mostly (blessedly) off Twitter for the last week and a half, so I haven’t said much on the matter, other than this tweet on July 27:
Screen shot 2013-08-06 at 6.41.18 PMFor the uninitiated: feminist advocate Caroline Criado-Perez ran a campaign that convinced the Bank of England to put a single freaking woman besides the Queen on a banknote. If you’re somehow not shocked that this landed her on the receiving end of a barrage of rape threats, surprise, you might be a Woman with an Opinion on the Internet.

Rape (and the threat of rape) has always been a go-to silencing tool among misogynists. They run particularly rampant online in part because the internet offers distance as well as access to people well beyond one’s immediate social circle. A man who feels ineffectual and deprived of personal power in his own life can feel a consequence-free rush by inflicting sexually-charged verbal aggression on an empowered woman he doesn’t know. Thanks, internet!

Or at least, so far it has been mostly consequence-free, but that is beginning to change. Two of the Twitter users who threatened Criado-Perez are under arrest. Twitter UK published a blog post outlining their responses to the situation, including the much-discussed “Report Abuse” button and updating the Twitter Rules to reflect a firm stance on abuse. Changes to the rules are welcome. That sends an important message to Twitter users and the business community about online violence, and may give some in-platform recourse to users under attack.

Shakesville details some of the problems likely to arise from the “Report Abuse” button, mainly that “one-click reporting systems are almost always automated to some degree and are already widely abused by trolls on Facebook and YouTube” (it was a favourite tactic in the campaign against Anita Sarkeesian, for example). Even a more hands-on moderation system can’t solve the problem, unless the company’s culture and training acknowledge the reality of gender-based violence. The Facebook Rape campaign provides a rich and recent example of a large social media platform whose moderation system was devoid of a gender lens. Many Facebook moderators categorized graphic depictions of violence against women as “humour”. This is unsurprising – our culture is steeped in that kind of messaging, why would we expect Facebook or Twitter to be immune?

Honestly, I feel our culture has the greatest potential for change if misogyny is out in the open. That doesn’t mean I feel remotely safe in a space saturated with it, or that I don’t want platforms like Facebook and Twitter to do what they can to make their spaces safe for all users. But misogynists have always been around, and in the same or similar numbers as we see now (though now we, regrettably, call them “trolls” – my thoughts on that here). They used to reserve their hatred for partners, colleagues, family members, one-off encounters and maybe the occasional letter-to-the-editor. Now misogynist hatred is diffused across many targets, near and far. It’s mundane. It’s time-stamped. Screencaps provide evidence difficult for a “devil’s advocate” Facebook friend to refute. I want this garbage out in the open air and sunlight where it can be referenced and challenged – because it’s there regardless. This is garden variety misogyny.

Labour MP Stella Creasy, who supported Criado-Perez’s campaign, has called for greater coordination between Twitter and law enforcement to help users under attack. I also believe law enforcement has an important role to play in curbing online rape threats and all other forms of violence against women, and that we must continue putting pressure on them to do so. But here’s the rub: institutional and technological interventions will always reflect the beliefs and values of the culture that shapes those institutions and the people who work with them. It’s why police forces, colleges, Twitter, etc etc etc do such a crap job of holding accountable the perpetrators of gender-based violence, online and offline. And they’ll continue to do a crap job of it until our culture takes this shit seriously and looks to the perpetrators (not the survivors) for change.

Well-meaning folks have been telling Criado-Perez to just stay off Twitter, because is it really worth all that trouble in the end, they wonder? FUCK THAT. Pushing opinionated women out of public discourse is exactly what these very small, very loud misogynists are trying to accomplish. We’ve been telling women to shut up about this stuff for long enough. Do you really want to hear more from the world’s misogynists than from its Caroline Criado-Perezes?

So keep reporting rape threats to the police and to Twitter, sure, but we also need to be pushing for the deeper change needed to turn institutional tides. We need to help people who work in these institutions to understand the role that rape threats play in silencing and subordinating women. One way to do that? Women: for the love of everything good in this world, don’t shut up, and deal with jerkoffs however the hell you want.

What should we call… “trolling”?

ImageThere’s a problem I’ve been encountering a lot in my travels as an internet feminist. Sometimes the presently available language for describing a phenomenon is wholly inadequate, and sometimes the consequences are harmful. The internet has been going through a bit of a popular-use growth spurt in the last several years, and a lot of things (governance, commerce, the legal system) are struggling to catch up. Language is one of those things, so I’ve decided to start a series on my blog examining the phenomena I feel are begging for re-definition.

I think we’ve long since reached the point of linguistic inadequacy with the word “trolling”. It’s only gotten worse since the mainstream media picked up on the concept in its most rudimentary form. These days it seems like 75% of the time I see the word “trolling”, the context implies its meaning is something along the lines of “being mean on the internet” (um, nope.jpg).

So what do we talk about when we talk about trolling? I tend to think of trolling as provocation for provocation’s sake. In other words, intent is an important part of the definition, and a troll’s primary intent is to get a rise out of someone. Urban Dictionary, o holiest of internet linguistic tomes, backs me up on this one. (Worth noting: all the most popular Urban Dictionary definitions had a high number of downvotes as well as upvotes, suggesting that definitions of trolling are pretty contested terrain.) One of the most popular definitions of trolling says, among other things, “…trolling statements are never true or are ever meant to be construed as such” and “trolling isn’t simply harmful statements”.

THANK YOU, PERSON WHO WROTE THAT. In so many of the instances in which the popular press (and the general public) apply the label “trolling”, they’re referring to sincere statements from people who believe every word they’re saying. These alleged “trolls” have myriad intentions that may include getting a rise out of their target, but also include silencing their target, humiliating their target, inspiring fear or emotional distress in their target, etc etc etc. It’s not provocation merely for provocation’s sake, and the stakes are much higher.

The word “trolling” is not appropriate for these situations, and that’s largely why ye olde adage “Don’t feed the trolls” is such absolute bunk advice in these situations. If the person’s primary intent were to get a rise out of you, then sure, “feeding” that desire would probably be unwise. But what if the person’s primary intent is to silence you, to erase your voice and your presence from their jealously guarded spaces for online social interaction? Following the “don’t feed the trolls” advice would be giving them exactly what they wanted, wouldn’t it?

It’s one thing to erroneously apply the “trolling” label when referring to someone simply being a dick on the internet. I can live with that. But when we apply it to people who are spewing hateful things about people of colour, women, queer people, trans* people… When we apply it to people who orchestrate months-long campaigns of harassment intended to terrorize the target… When we apply it to people uttering death threats and rape threats… Well, we’re insulting the targets of this hatred and harassment, and I’d even go so far as to say we’re insulting THE PROUD INTERNET TRADITION of trolling itself.

I’d argue these kinds of behaviours shouldn’t be defined differently on the internet than they are offline. We don’t need special internet words for hate speech, harassment, or death threats. These words already exist. But to appease the many who seem hell-bent on calling this stuff “trolling”, would it be worthwhile to come up with a new expression for this kind of internet treachery? What should we call it? Tell me in the comments.