Sometimes the atmosphere is buzzing, the jokes are hilarious and everyone on your timeline is your “best mate”; at others, familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least boredom. You already know where everyone stands on everything from independence to The Stone Roses’ new single and it feels as if the same tired conversations are being played out over and over again. Occasionally, an air of menace pervades the place, as if a few people in your party have had one too many and it’s only a question of time until blows are exchanged.
Where Twitter differs from a pub, of course, is that anyone can weigh in at any time. This is one of its benefits. New faces liven things up, lend fresh perspectives, keep life interesting. But what if the incomers aren’t interested in contributing to the debate? What if they’ve only pitched up to cause trouble? What if they arrive en masse with the sole purpose of ousting you from your virtual snug?
This is a question that has exercised the users of social media as long as it has existed. How do you deal with the worst of the trolls without stripping it of its character? How do you police it without transforming it from The Horsehoe Bar into All Bar One?
Last week, a cross-party group of female MPs launched Reclaim the Internet in response to a Demos report which uncovered “the staggering scale” of aggressive messages being sent through social media.
It found that, over three weeks, 6,500 UK Twitter users were targeted with 10,000 tweets using the words “slut” and “whore”. It is not the first survey to suggest social media is rife with hate speech nor that it is aimed disproportionately at women. Most high-profile female commentators have been threatened with rape at some time or another.
In the face of all that, the decision by Yvette Cooper, Jess Phillips, former Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson and former Conservative minister Maria Miller to launch an online public consultation to gather the views of tech companies, victims, employers, campaigners, trade unions, police, youth organisations and others on how to tackle online abuse is understandable.
And yet isn’t there a danger that such a campaign will lead to an over-simplification of the problem and the sanitising of a forum that succeeds precisely because it is often edgy and anarchic? Take the name itself, inspired by Reclaim the Night, the 1970s/1980s marches staged after women were told not to go out after dark. Is that comparison helpful? Sure, social media can be a horrible place for women harassed for voicing an opinion; and perhaps such abuse does contribute to a male-dominated environment. On the other hand, the Demos survey shows 50% of the misogynistic slurs come from women. And not all of the abuse is gendered. Trolls customise their weapons according to their target. So they use homophobic slurs on LGBT people, racist slurs on black people. Students troll their teachers, political campaigners troll their rivals.
The name also slightly overstates what’s at stake. The Reclaim the Night marches were a reaction to women being physically attacked. However distressing online threats are, we know most of those who deliver them have neither the intention nor the means to carry them out. They are sad misfits who use the anonymity social media provides to give them a spurious sense of power.
My reservations about the Reclaim the Internet campaign have little to do with the “freedom of speech” arguments that surface whenever this issue is discussed. It has become increasingly apparent to me that those who bleat most loudly about the dangers of censorship on the internet are often those whose platform comes at the expense of the more marginalised. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Phillips suggests “Megadogyourmom485, whose personal info states ‘Free thinker, expect to be offended’ written atop the back drop of an over-stylised naked manga woman toting a bazooka” is not the greatest asset to democracy – and she’s right. The true enemies of freedom of speech are those who try to silence others with their vitriol.
Nor do I think the status quo is acceptable. Current methods of dealing with trolls – reporting and blocking – work up to a point, but they may be inadequate to cope with instances where the abuse falls short of actual threats or when it is orchestrated by someone with a mass following.
However, I fear mobilising a mass campaign may be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Some of those who have been on the receiving end of abuse believe a few simple tweaks could make a difference: making it impossible for people you have blocked to @ you, for example, or introducing a “group block”, where users could band together to ostracise one troll.
Twitter has been slow to take these suggestions on board. Instead it has focused on other innovations such as swapping stars for hearts, and Moments. Last week, it revealed photos and @s would no longer count in the 140-character limit, which will allow trolls to tweet more abusive images to a larger number of people.
It is the failure of Twitter (and Facebook) to adequately respond to legitimate concerns that has spawned Reclaim the Internet. The stature of those involved means big changes are now likely. But at what cost? Will they be able to find a way to tackle the worst of the offending without expunging the swearing, the raucous humour and the piss-taking that is the essence of Twitter? Or will the campaign result in new laws and rules that reduce our feeds to a screed of Hallmark-style platitudes, and make engaging online as risqué as a Sunday school picnic and as stimulating as a James Milner press conference?