[Content Note: Rape Threats, Transphobia, Racism]
As some of you already know, feminist Caitlin Moran has called for a boycott of Twitter on August 4th in order to demonstrate support for a "report abuse" button on Twitter as well as possibly making Twitter a paid-subscribers-only service.
Hurricane Virginia has a good Storify here, and I strongly urge everyone to go read it, but I'll summarize the events as I understand them here: Activist Caroline Criado-Perez lobbied long, hard, and ultimately successfully to get Jane Austen placed on banknotes in the UK. Misogynistic pushback immediately occurred, and she started receiving hundreds of rape-threats and death-threats on Twitter.
Now, just to be clear for a moment: rape-threats and death-threats on Twitter are not new. Feminist and womanist activists -- and especially trans* activists and women of color -- have been receiving them for a long time on Twitter, and Twitter's historical position has been basically to ignore any threats reported to them. For example, Canadian-American-with-Armenian-parents blogger Anita Sarkeesian has been told by Twitter staff that rape threats aimed at her are not a violation of the Twitter terms of service. That Twitter is not taking these threats seriously is a serious problem.
However, the solution proposed to this situation by a lot of high-profile feminists with, it must be pointed out, a lot of relative privilege (including in many cases, but not limited to: cis privilege, white privilege, class privilege, urban privilege, thin privilege, religious privilege, and straight privilege) was to not demand that Twitter revise its terms of service to disallow rape- and death- threats and then proactively respond to tweets reported to the help team via email, as well as possibly making a special class of closely-monitored accounts for protection (much as Twitter already maintains "Verified" accounts for celebrities and political figures) where Twitter could proactively locate, remove, and ban rape-threats from frequently targeted accounts whose owners request this service.
Instead, these feminists organized a campaign asking Twitter to create a "report abuse" button so that people could have a one-click crowd-sourced method for flagging problematic tweets. And then, when people pointed out that trolls could make an infinite number of harassing accounts, many of them doubled-down by asking that Twitter become a paid service which disallows anonymous or free accounts because that is a system which benefits trolls.
Activists with significantly less privilege -- trans women, Muslim women, women of color, and women sex workers -- quickly and thoroughly pointed out all the concerns behind this proposed report abuse button. They pointed out that one-click reporting systems are almost always automated to some degree and are already widely abused by trolls on Facebook and YouTube. (As Silver Adept previously noted in an excellent post about the harassment of FemFreq on YouTube.) They pointed out that Twitter already has a spam-flagging function which is abused by trolls. (I myself was spam-flagged by anti-choice activists on the Wendy Davis filibuster night and locked out of my account for several hours.) They pointed out that a troll can only spam-flag an account once, but that the report abuse button can be pressed for every single tweet someone makes on an account.
They pointed out that "kickback bans" (banning people for false reports of abuse) harm marginalized people who report genuine abuse only to be overruled by a privileged moderator. (And are we really going to assume that Twitter won't have a single racist or homophobic moderator on-staff? That plays into the narrative that people who oppress are obvious and easy to spot. They're not.) They pointed out that paywalls don't stop trolls (many of whom are happy to invest in their misogyny), but they do stop people who are impoverished and otherwise unable to interact with online feminism. (It's not easy to blog or comment exclusively from a donated smartphone, but you can tweet exclusively from one.) They pointed out that financial privilege is a serious barrier in an economy, just in America alone, where "four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty, or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives".
They pointed out that women of color who point out racist framings in the words and actions of white people, including white people who claim to identify as allies, are frequently accused of abusive behavior. They pointed out that trans women who point out transphobia in the words and actions of cis people, including cis people who claim to identify as allies, are frequently accused of abusive behavior. (I strongly encourage everyone to read the comments on that post as well.) They pointed out that Muslim women who point out Islamophobia in the words and actions of various Christian and atheist activists, including activists who claim to identify as allies, are frequently accused of abusive behavior. They pointed out that popular people with thousands of followers have been willing to leverage those followers in order to harass people who raise legitimate criticism, and that an automated reporting system will only feed into that. They pointed out that the people on the twitter team who will be handling the abuse reports will probably not be sensitive to these issues and are likely to automatically side with the white cis religiously-privileged people claiming "abuse!" because that is how privilege works.
Frustratingly, though not surprisingly, the majority of feminists calling for the Report Abuse button have refused to listen, insisting that the Twitter moderation team will handle things appropriately (because they've been doing a cracker-jack job prior to all this!) and claiming that concerns about white people targeting black twitterers for abuse or cis people targetting trans* twitterers for abuse are overblown and besides reverse-racism and reverse-transphobia because black people and trans* people could do the same thing (and we all know how moderation teams have historically come down hard on white cis people because of political correctness run amok!).
Last night I had this exchange with a feminist (which was the second exchange I'd already had with her on the subject, which she had ended by insisting that literally no one except trolls has anything to fear from a report button) and which I believe involved us speaking past each other because I made the error of assuming that everyone in the conversation agreed that abusive bigots (in this case "TERFs" or "Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists") do abusive, bigoted things and that that is a problem. That assumption was, in retrospect, a little too much to assume.
I won't be boycotting Twitter on August 4th. I believe strongly, deeply, in well-moderated safe spaces. But I also know from experience that a poorly moderated space is worse than an unmoderated one with a perfectly well-functioning block button.
I have been harassed by moderators claiming that my requests for fat accepting language is abusive. I have been harassed by moderators claiming that my requests to purge the word "rape" from our vocabularies when discussing Things That Are Not Rape are abusive. I have been harassed for calling racist, transphobic, misogynist, and hateful language exactly what it is in calm, non-sweary language. I have been deemed abusive and wrong for challenging the status quo kyriarchy, and I have been deemed so by people with the power to silence me in that space. And I have also seen and experienced firsthand the ways in which trolls are truly adept at manipulating systems to their advantage.
Twitter could make a truly real commitment to maintaining a safe space, with or without a report button. (Twitter is also not too poor to accomplish this without paid accounts,
as evidenced by the eleventy-billion paid-for "Promoted" tweets in my
feed right now.) They have not done so, and many people who should be calling on them to do so have instead chosen to clamor for a crowd-sourced solution and then openly harassed the people pointing out that they have been historically marginalized by crowd-sourced moderating. That is not ally behavior, and in many cases the harassment has been outright abusive.
That the people manning the Twitter report team will almost certainly not view that behavior as abusive, however, is precisely part of the problem.