Twitter doesn’t send horrific racist abuse, people do.
…on Twitter. They do it, but use Twitter to do it.
And there we have it: the big debate of our time.
Across the internet, you can find a load of toxic cesspools, where the worst parts of our human selves are given space to be expressed, shared, and amplified. There’s the nasty bit(s) of Twitter, the manosphere, 4chan, Facebook groups where conspiracies and false news spread quicker than Covid, TattleLife (where women will gleefully criticise influencers’ weight, parenting choices, ‘annoying’ faces, etc), and so on and so on.
Every few weeks - or even days, at this point - the horrible stuff that people say online will get more horrible, or it will be aimed at a public figure, or it will simply tip over into mainstream awareness thanks to its sheer scale or awfulness, and there will be concerned discussions of how these platforms need to change or be stopped.
We put forward possible, but unworkable, solutions: ID checks! Lifetime bans for anyone who has posted abuse! Prompts to ask people to think before they tweet! More stringent blocking systems, so monkey emoji will be flagged to the same degree as women’s nipples!
People explain, yet again, why these options don’t work. Then, with clockwork regularity, we move on to the next question: if we shut down these places, if we make them spaces where you can’t be awful, will we just push the abuse underground? Will they make their own horrible online hangout to get even deeper into racism, misogyny, antisemitism?
Then the next one: maybe the problem isn’t the social media, but the people using the platforms? Do we need to tackle the deep undercurrent of hate and anger running through the world? How do we even start to do that?
And the next: where is all the negative stuff coming from? Is it some innate part of people that we can’t just snip out of society? Could it be caused by the fundamental unfairness of the world we’ve created? Is the internet making us worse?
And then we’re back to the start again. Maybe it’s the internet’s fault, not just for giving us ways to shout out the worst things we can think of, but for warping our brains so much that we want to do that. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, they were all designed to be addictive, to keep you coming back. They made likes and replies in a way that they set off the little dopamine releasers in our brains, then ensured that controversial takes would be rewarded, pushed to the top of feeds and given plenty of ‘engagement’.
I think in tweets, sometimes. I speak in memes. My brain is soundtracked by TikTok snippets. I often think I’m not opinionated enough, most often when GMB give me a ring to ask my thoughts on a debate topic and my response is ‘eh, I just think people should do what makes them happy’, then realise I only think this because non-extreme opinions won’t get validation through engagement online.
I haven’t tweeted abuse or racism (because I’m not abusive or racist), but I have said and done things online that aren’t what you would call ‘good’. I’ve taken the piss out of Twitter main characters, been overly critical, and shared screenshots for the purpose of enticing other people into laughing at someone else’s expense.
Did the internet make me do that? Or was that little bit of meanness always there, ready to come out in diary entries or bitchy remarks had we never gone online? Does a mean thought matter if you don’t publicly share it? If I’m needlessly judgmental about someone and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The people vs platform loop is a lot like the gun control debate (hence the first line), in that the platform is powerless without the people, but the platform lets those people cause a lot more damage.
We probably do need to ask ourselves why white men are so enraged that they want to shoot people, and tackle that issue with a real urgency. But in the meantime, we’d prefer if those angry men didn’t have access to guns.
The trouble is that solving the internet issues isn’t as clearcut as just banning social media or doing background checks. Guns are destruction machines, they don’t do anything but hurt. There are parts of social media that are destructive, sure, but there are parts that are lovely, too.
The struggle is whether we can cut away the bad, rotten edges and keep the good stuff, or if the slicing will inevitably cut too close and damage the entire thing, or if it’s still the same thing once you’ve dissected away half of the original parts (Ship of Theseus, am I right?).
It’s complicated, and we might have gone too far to backtrack and undo the way the internet has burrowed its way into the hardwiring of our minds. I don’t think asking people to #BeKind is going to do the trick, and neither is scrapping the whole thing.
The best thing we can do, as we wait for actual experts to work out a solution before we’ve all melted into a puddle of poisonous discourse, is to seek out the light, avoid the rage, and question the parts of ourselves that lean towards the destructive, the extreme, and the mean.
Or to put it in internet terms: sometimes, it’s okay not to post.
Reading recs (it’s been a while, so I’ve got a load)
Have not stopped talking about jellyfish since reading this horrifying piece. Thanks for a new fear.
A question I find myself asking so often: what even is ‘cool’?
The obsession with blonde hair and blue eyes on Love Island this year is unsettling - this gal-dem piece does a great job explaining why
Also have not stopped thinking about this story of a woman trying to prove she isn’t dead
And another Guardian one (I really do love having a Guardian weekend subscription, it feels very wholesome to sit with my nice matcha latte and read great stuff on a Saturday/Sunday morning), from Amelia Tait: what happens when therapy makes things worse?
The ‘Cat Person was about me and this guy who died’ piece!! Have you read it? Please do.
And some tweets I have enjoyed from the past month, to show that sometimes social media can be good:
Craig @ctayts@Lord_Sugar Strange thing to post for everyone to see!
if you read all the way down here I love you, thank you