Of all the social media platforms every smartphone owner checks at least ten times a day, Twitter is the hardest to pin down. Is it an inane realm of nobodies saying nothing? Is it One Direction fans’ hallowed space? Is it a tool for barbed political satire, as told through hashtags? (hello #piggate) Can it undermine dominant media narratives and help bring about real change, as during the Arab Spring? Or is it a teeming mass of anonymous trolls, pouring seething vitriol on any in their virtual path?
Depending on who you ask, it is any or all of these. With over 300 million monthly active users Twitter has as numerous a population as the United States – so its tribal variability should be unsurprising. 120 characters may be easy to digest, but 9100 tweets a second are much harder to define, grasp or control.
Created and ruled by its multifarious users, Twitter is a supreme democratic platform. Aside from a blue verification tick, a teenager from Edinburgh is offered the same package as President Obama, Katy Perry or any of the Kardashian clan. Many in the United States and United Kingdom wish their democracies offered nearly such equal footing in matters of voice. It is this unfixed, autonomous format that so threatens traditional media; armed with only internet connection, anyone can become a social commentator, or even destabilizer.
However, as in any democratic nation, the power of individual voice comes shadowed with the problem of free speech. Surely the mark of any democracy worth it’s name is the right to freedom of speech and thought; in times of repression and social control, this freedom is usually the first to be removed (hello North Korea, China and Iran). Yet, another clear mark of a functioning society is safety, and it is here that Twitter is letting it’s users down.
For every sharply worded tweet aimed at the political elite, or unforeseen viral sensation, there are hundreds of tweets composed purely with the intention to harass, intimidate and shame. While the web of free speech, incitement to hatred and censorship is always a contentious one to tread (as eruptions over certain public speakers, or the banning of them often proves), in the offline world there is a general recognition of what constitutes personal abuse. Usually, the repeated threat of violent assault or savage rape would be seen as definitively crossing the line from ‘free speech’ to ‘terrorisation’. Yet, on Twitter, we seem to have become accustomed to public figures receiving barrages of abuse. ‘Trolls’ are no longer mythical, but humdrum everyday.
Lena Dunham has recently announced her withdrawal from Twitter after facing “rapid, disgusting comments” about her body. She is the latest in a long line to bring the issue of Internet abuse to attention. Women’s rights campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to over 50 rape and murder threats an hour over a period of days; academic Mary Beard retweeted a troll calling her a ‘filthy old slut’ as an example of the regular abuse she received; the women’s editor of The Telegraph, Emma Barnett, Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman and Independent columnist Grace Dent were all threatened with bomb attacks at their homes. All women; all, in the words of a troll interviewed by Barnett, “asking for it” by putting their heads “above the parapet”, by daring to voice an opinion. Of course, it is not just women who are abused; the gay community, the trans community and prominent people of colour also come in for their ‘fair’ share of anonymous bile. They may be on a new, virtual plane but these trolls are nothing new. This is not freedom of speech, but enforced censorship of any voice outside a patriarchal, heteronormative framework. This is an attempt to push people out of public spaces. It is a silencing act. The sad thing is, as Lena Dunham’s Twitter exit has proved, too often it works.