Understanding Twitter

Abusive behaviour on social networking platforms—specifically Twitter—has been a hot topic lately. From the abuse Caroline Criado-Perez received, and Caitlin Moran’s #twittersilence campaign, to the recent BBC Newsnight piece that’s caused such a stir among those that it wrongfully labelled as “abusive”.

The cause of all this talk, that is, the abuse that people receive through social networks, is a legitimate concern. No matter how empty a threat over the Internet may be, nobody should think it reasonable or acceptable to threaten violence—sexual or otherwise—against another person simply because they disagree with them.

Unfortunately, as with any hot topic, there are a lot of people hopping on the coattails of a genuine problem to push their own agenda, one example of this being the recent suspension of @elevatorgate from Twitter.

ElevatorGate

For those unaware—though I doubt anybody reading this will be—@elevatorgate is an account on Twitter that retweets and shares conversations in and around the topic of Social Justice, Feminism, Male Rights Activism, and so on. Though it’s no secret that the owner of the account is not a feminist, and certainly not a fan of Social Justice Warriorism, the conversations he shares are often provided in full and with no commentary. This means that any person reading a conversation and concluding that what is being said is the epitome of reason, or absolute gibberish, has come to that conclusion themselves, @elevatorgate merely shared it with them.

This behaviour, some people have decided, is abusive.

As is the case with any organised group, you don’t have to be correct or reasonable to affect change, you only need to look at theists opposing abortion to see that. A sufficient number of people reported @elevatorgate for abuse that his account was suspended. Time will tell if Twitter agree that the account was abusive.

Abusive?

There seems to be a significant misunderstanding of what Twitter is, and how it works. A lot of feminists have claimed that @elevatorgate “stalks” them, and that his sharing of their tweets is “harassment”. This is not the case.

Imagine you are on a street corner, and you’re having a quiet conversation with a few friends. Now imagine somebody listens in for a little while, not involved, but in earshot. Imagine they then walk off to a group of their friends and tell them what you’ve been saying. While somebody could make the argument that you shouldn’t have an expectation of privacy if you’re talking in the street, common courtesy dictates that you shouldn’t be listening.

Twitter, however, is not this.

What Twitter is, is you standing on a soap box on the street corner and shouting your opinions to the crowd in front of you. The crowd is made up of your followers. Now, there may be other people further down the street that can’t hear you, but, if you’re going to stand on a street corner shouting, you should have any expectation that your words will not be heard by all.

In this analogy, @elevatorgate stands in the crowd around one soapbox, listens to what they’re shouting, and then walks down the street to his own soapbox and repeats what he’s heard. Twitter is a public broadcasting platform. Even if you only have three followers, you shouldn’t be saying anything that you wouldn’t want the whole world to know you’d said, so whether you like that somebody is repeating your message or not is irrelevant.

There are other options, of course. You could protect your account which, to stick with the analogy, would be like taking your soapbox off of the street and into a building where you controlled who was allowed in. You can also use direct messaging, which would be like going into that building with one other person and having a private conversation. Your public tweets, however, are just that. Public.

Terms of Service

Obviously, Twitter makes it quite clear that your tweets are fair game for all. The terms of service highlights a “tip” stating simply, “What you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly”. There is absolutely no fog or lack of clarity on this matter. If there is anybody in the world—even one person—whom you do not want to see the thing you are about to tweet, you shouldn’t tweet it.

Where the supposedly harassed might have more luck is in the “Twitter Rules”, which has a section clearly defining what Twitter deems as “Abuse and Spam”. Let’s take this point by point.

Serial Accounts

“You may not create multiple accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes, or with overlapping use cases. Mass account creation may result in suspension of all related accounts. Please note that any violation of the Twitter Rules is cause for permanent suspension of all accounts.”

@elevatorgate may have more than one account, but only the @elevatorgate account is used for what has been deemed harassment, so the simple act of having multiple accounts does not conflict with Twitters stance on abuse.

Targeted Abuse

“You may not engage in targeted abuse or harassment. Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be targeted abuse or harassment are:

– if you are sending messages to a user from multiple accounts;
– if the sole purpose of your account is to send abusive messages to others;
– if the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats”

Firstly, @elevatorgate rarely sends any message to the people whose conversations he shares, other than a notification that he has shared it. Secondly given the sheer volume of conversations that @elevatorgate shares—something that a lot of his supposed victims have commented on—it’s ridiculous to call what he does targeted, or obsessive. Additionally, given that he shares conversations between non-feminists, it would be difficult to claim he’s targeting a specific group, let alone a specific person.

And the Rest

The rest Twitter’s “Abuse and Spam” section doesn’t really apply. Username Squatting, Selling Usernames, Malware and Phishing, Invitation Spam, and Pornography are all clear cut, and nothing that @elevatorgate has engaged in. Perhaps an argument could be made for spam, but it would be a weak one, considering that most of the people who claim he has harassed them have blocked him, so they’d have to go looking for his tweets. Clearly, it’s not spam when you go looking for it.

Not for You?

Ultimately, the behaviour of @elevatorgate is perfectly acceptable within the terms of Twitter and, as described above, in real life as well if you were to take your own tweeting activity and translate it to the real world.

Fighting abuse is fine, nobody should have to put up with threats of violence. And though I’ve made my problems with the “Report Abuse” button clear, I do believe technological solutions can be implemented to fight abuse.

But if you consider having your public statements shared as a form of abuse, the problem isn’t society, or misogyny, or Twitter.

The problem is you’re on the wrong social network.

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