This post delves into the phenomenon of Twitter-shaming. It discusses outbursts of fury on the platform that take the form of proper manhunts realized through retweets, hashtags, and at-signs, and that raise the question of institutionalized intervention.
A Remarkable Decision
Last week, Twitter decided to permanently suspend Milo Yiannopoulos (@Nero, over 338,000 followers), a right-wing writer and notorious 'troll,’ from using the platform. Yiannopoulos was among the Twitter users who provoked what turned into a widespread and unrestrained online abuse of actor Leslie Jones for her role in the new Ghostbusters film.
Jones responded to the sexist and racist comments by reporting the senders of the abusive messages to Twitter. The platform decided to intervene on Jones’ behalf by banning, among others, Yiannopoulos on grounds of harassment. In the days following the decision, other users started to show their disagreement with Twitter’s actions through the platform: hashtags like #FreeMilo and #JeSuisMilo became trending worldwide. The story also made it into the mainstream media (e.g. The Guardian and the New York Times), not only because of the disputes among Twitter users, but also because this action seems to show Twitter finally addressing abuse on its platform – which it had been promising to do for a while.
The Twitter Constitution
Twitter has official rules which it states on the support section of the website. These rules say the following on the issue of abuse:
The rules then provide a number of definitions of terms like ‘threat,’ ‘harassment,’ ‘hateful conduct,’ ‘abuse,’ etc., followed by a statement of the right Twitter reserves to ‘investigate,’ ‘judge’ and to ‘intervene’. By all this, the company effectively establishes a privatized form of criminal justice:
Historically, written codes have always underpinned legal power effectively, be it in the form of contracts and terms of service, or penal codes and constitutions. But so far, Twitter users don’t seem too content about Twitter’s use of its newly established power. They criticize the platform for arbitrarily applying these rules, intervening mostly in cases that involve celebrities, not when Jane or John Doe are targeted.
The ‘@JustineSacco’-case has become somewhat exemplary of how harassment can spread via Twitter. In December 2013, Justine Sacco, a thirty-year-old senior director of corporate communications at an American company, IAC, tweeted her by now infamous joke: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She got no response to the message from any of her 170 followers before boarding a plane from London to Cape Town to spend the holidays with family. As she landed, however, she found out that her handle, @JustineSacco, and the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet had become the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter.
The tweet Sacco sent before boarding had been picked up by other Twitter users, who misread the message as being a racist statement, a signal of white privilege over the back of AIDS sufferers. Among those users was Sam Biddle, a journalist for the online platform Gawker, who shared Sacco’s message with his 15,000 followers accompanied by the statement, “And now, a funny holiday joke from IAC’s P.R. boss”. Tweets and retweets quoting Sacco’s message and accusing her of racism went viral. Statements became increasingly abusive, calling Sacco a “racist bitch” and suggesting someone should kill her. Not long after Sacco was fired from her job and left devastated.
As the @JustineSacco-case shows, the specific issue with Twitter is not only that some of its users somehow feel free to send abusive messages to express their outrage, but also the incredible speed with which outrage can spread through the network of users by the simple means of a hashtag, handle or retweet.
In his 2015 TED-talk on online shaming, journalist and author Jon Ronson discusses the @JustineSacco-case. A journalist he interviewed had tried to stand up for Sacco, as the abuse spread, by tweeting that perhaps the joke was not intended to be racist. Jonson describes that a ‘fury of tweets’ came back at the journalist, shunning her, too, for supposedly being privileged.
The fury-metaphor is telling for this form of targeted shaming as a way of hitting back at perceived injustice. Fury is the kind of anger that has a madness about it; it is a frenzied form of rage. The word fury is used both as a noun and a verb. It often describes an event of wanton destruction (‘The Spanish Fury’). In Greek mythology, ‘the furies’ are avenging deities who mete out Zeus’ justice by punishing crime – mostly by instigating people to commit an act of vengeance. Fury is directed: it targets and seeks to punish the perceived perpetrator of a crime. Psychologist and affect theorist Silvan Tomkins describes fury (rage) as an especially ‘contagious’ affect, one that spreads easily between people. It is the affect of crowds, in the sense of ‘a furious mob’; it is what the establishment seeks to control.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau - The Remorse of Orestes,1862 (shows Orestes pursued by the Furies)
As such, on Twitter, fury resides not so much in the individual abusive message, or on the level of what is being said: it is rather what incites a swarm of users to keep growing and accumulate critical mass through #-tags and @-handles.
A Swarm Called ‘#FreeMilo’
Twitter is the service that propelled both devices, the @ and the #. The @, or ‘Twitter handle,’ allows users to direct messages at specific other users. The hashtag, #, is a metadata device. It was proposed by an early user in 2007 for group communication and adopted more widely with the San Diego fires in that year. It allows users to track and update information as it makes the tags searchable simply by clicking on them. It has turned out to be especially effective in a situation of crisis or emergency, and in order to facilitate this use, Twitter introduced a list of ‘trending’ hashtags on the main page. However , hashtags appear to work the other way around as well: #-labeling also allows users to more or less create en event or crisis, as in the Justine Sacco- situation, but also in users’ responses to Twitter’s decision to ban @Nero from their service last week.
In the days following Twitter’s quasi-judicial intervention, users directed themselves at Twitter’s CEO (@jack) with the hashtag #FreeMilo to indicate their outrage at the ban. Consequently, Twitter’s decision itself became the subject of a fury of tweets.
The attempt to pin the outburst of fury on individual users by framing it in terms of behavior transgressive of the rules on abuse and by punishing it through terminating an account seems only to incite new swarms. This raises the question if fury’s contagious logic – its swarm-inciting madness – structurally frustrates attempts to capture and contain it through a trial-like form of judgment. I, for one, am curious to see how Twitter proposes to deal with this.
© Tessa de Zeeuw and Leiden Arts in Society Blog, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Tessa de Zeeuw and Leiden Arts in Society Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.