Why I’m not participating in #TwitterSilence


Due to the incessant trolling and abuse that’s been taking place against women on Twitter recently, today has been earmarked as a day to stay off the social network.

The initial idea was Caitlin Moran’s (see tweet above) and I respect her greatly as she has dealt with a vast amount of social media abuse herself. You can read more about the idea of today’s #TwitterSilence or #Trolliday as it’s being called, here.

Lots of Tweeters, including many high profile folks, have agreed to join in. I think we all feel desperate for a way to reach out and support each other in what for many women has been a horrendous week, or few weeks. #Twittersilence provides a way that people can offer a physical token of support. I resonate with the reasons why people would want to.

// Respect for all 

When Caitlin announced it and it gathered momentum, I felt torn.

I hugely respect everyone taking part: surely that has to be the underlying sentiment for any response to abuse; everyone needs to respond to it as they feel is appropriate. On that basis, know that I’m cheering you on if you are doing #Twittersilence. I’ve been very touched by the wave of messages I’ve had today saying many of you are doing it to stand with me after my Lads Mags trolling and I’m really moved by that support.

// Fix silence with – more silence?

For many of us who have been trolled, it’s felt like the goal of the attacks has been to scare us into silence. The whole reason many of us have been targeted is because we ARE women who speak up; who choose to put our heads above the parapet and make a noise about things that need to change. So when you feel like you’re trying to be silenced, the solution to that (in my personal opinion) is not more silence.

// Twitter staff: it’s not “us vs them”

Some are doing #TwitterSilence today to take a stand against Twitter’s staff; to show them we can boycott their platform if they fail to help police it.

I have several good friends working for Twitter UK and I know they are doing their very best to listen to our complaints and improve their service. So I’m not sure creating a ‘them and us’ is helpful. We all need to work together; Twitter’s staff are listening (as Del Harvey, Head of Trust and Safety, has promised) and they have apologised (as Tony Wang, UK General Manager has). Us working WITH them rather than making them the target is important. The real target are the trolls. They, not Twitter’s staff, are the major problem.

// Broken Binary

On a more philosophical level, I think “switching off” a social network has interesting ethical implications.

From my academic research in technology and its ethics (PhD slowly in process!) I’ve written a lot on this topic. It’s what I’d refer to as the ‘broken binary’ of the way we often handle technology.

Turning off is frequently reached for as a “solution” to our technological struggles. In no way is this behaviour restricted to religious people but, just as an example, many Christian demonstrate this at Lent (the time of the year when it’s traditional to give things up as a fast). “Staying off Facebook for Lent” was a huge campaign a few years ago among church-goers. I informally interviewed many of them and was told “I’m just need to get this distraction out of my life”, or “I need to focus on the real world a lot more and my real relationships”. Or worse still: “God deserves my full attention and I shouldn’t be using my gadgets if I’m fully worshiping him”.

The broken binary is:

1). That “switching off ” is a solution.

2). That “switching off” is morally better than “switching on”.

3). That offline is “real life” and online is “not real life”.

// Neutral tool

Technology is a tool; it’s largely a neutral one. Social media can’t be blamed for the troubles it is throwing up. The neutral tool is in OUR hands and we get to choose what we do with it. It’s like the invention of the printing press; people said it would cause the destruction of society, such were its “evils”. It’s like the invention of the wheel; we get to choose whether we drive safely and enhance life, or drive recklessly and kill people. The moral onus is not on the tool, it’s on US. Putting the tool down doesn’t really fix anything; but learning to handle the tool well, day in day out, does. Putting the tool down can imply the the moral responsibility is on the tool, not us, to become the solution.

//The future is cyborg

Yes, I’m a huge sci-fi fan, so blame it on that. But part of my PhD is looking at ‘transhumanism’. This is the merging of human and machine. You might say “that’s never going to happen”, but based on our current behaviour toward technology and our dependence on it, I believe we’ll see embedded technology for personal enhancement purposes within our life time.

We already have prosthetic limbs; the line between human and machine is rapidly blurring. In the Matrix we see Neo ‘downloading’ the ability to perform Kung Fu. A computer is plugged in to the back of his head and enhances his natural abilities. It may all seems ‘way out’ to many! But from the tiny smartphones we clutch all day, it’s comprehensible that we’ll gradually get used to the idea of embedding chips in our bodies – even if many wince at the idea for ethical or physical reasons now.

The blurring line between human and machine means that in future the broken binary of “on” and “off” related to technology will seem laughable. It will simply be part of us. Hence the need for us to learn to handle it well now.

// Digital Kids

Many parents are struggling to help their children handle technology; many of them simply reach for the “right then, turn that thing off!” option.

Instead of always using this broken binary as the solution, parents need to teach their kids how to develop good boundaries with the technology ON or the kids won’t be ready for the always-on culture that they are likely to inhabit as adults. They may well live in a world where transhumanism and cyborgism is the norm, so we need to train them to be ready for that. (You may laugh at me now…but wait and see!).

// Final thoughts

  • Once again, I totally respect all who are observing #TwitterSilence and I ‘get’ why you are doing it and cheer you on.
  • Personally on the basis of it being odd to combat women being silenced by using more silence, I can’t sign up to it.
  • Philosophically it also doesn’t mesh with my research into technology’s ethics and the consistent trend of “switching off” as a solution. Rather we need to learn to live well in with our technology “on”; to develop an online community with enough safety yet enough freedom of speech. It’s a tricky goal but I don’t think abandoning the social network for a day gets us any closer to a solution. It will only come by standing our ground within the online sphere and patiently working to make it a better place.
  • Vivienne Tuffnell

    I’ve been watching it all unfold and hoping that no one is going to start polarising and unfollowing folks for breaking the Twitter silence. I’d rather see MORE positive, powerful messages than merely more silence. 100 thousand people being silent in a huge public space is incredibly powerful but given the sheer numbers on Twitter it might seem merely a quiet day.

  • Gareth Milner

    I think you’re right when you say that it’s important for people to make their own choice about being silence or not. I personally wont be staying silent, for to do so could almost suggest that the trolls on twitter have won in a way. Really found your point about cyborgs interesting, mainly because I’m a sci-fi person too, but I cant help but wonder at what point does integration stop.

  • Sue

    Twitter is often the only contact with the outside world for thousands of people who are ill and/or disabled. #twittersilence is very frightening for these already very isolated people.

    I respect people who are participating in #twittersilence but fear that people who break the silence will be criticised.

    My thoughts are with you. Very glad that you’re speaking out. You’re very brave. Solidarity!

  • Beth

    Once again, another thought provoking blog post. Insightful to me, since I don’t tweet from my twitter account, although I have one.

    From the few philosophical texts I’ve read that deal with avant gardism I’d guess you could be right about embedded gadgets.

    The post-Enlightenment project, “What is Human?” intrigues me.

  • ashley beck

    Some very interesting thoughts here, Vicky. With regard to the ‘broken binary’, I’m always struck by the (geek alert!) character of the Doctor in Star Trek Voyager. The Doctor is a hologram, programmed to be a temporary emergency supplement to the medical crew. But the medical crew are killed, and the holographic doctor becomes the chief medical officer, running near constantly across the 7 year run of the series.

    In that time, he struggles to be taken seriously and be treated as a person. He is granted autonomy and the ability to ‘extend his programme’, developing his personality, gaining an appreciation for art, falling in love. And it is clear, as the show progresses, that the crew eventually do consider him as an equal person.

    Late in the show’s life, there are a couple of occasions when the Doctor makes decisions he later regrets and asks the Captain to punish him. Specifically, he asks that he be restored to his original programming, ‘delete my personality sub-routines’. The Captain’s responses are very interesting, ethically. She says no. She tells the Doctor that he has become more than a computer programme, he has become a person. And part of being a person is realising you have to live with your mistakes. You don’t get to turn back the clock, you can’t de-activate your personality or roll-back to an earlier version of you.

  • ashley beck

    And I wonder if that isn’t related to how we choose to use technology now. Whether we like it or not, the tech is here, and we can’t turn back the clock to burn the books or destroy the gadgets. We have to find ways to live with it responsibly, and to accept we will make mistakes along the way (including giving things like Facebook too much of our time, perhaps).

  • Pam_Smith

    Really interesting point about the ‘broken binary’. My objection to #twittersilence is a bit more basic than yours I’m afraid – i wasn’t consulted, certain people took it upon themselves to act as self-appointed ‘leaders’ and – at least initially – state the moral superiority of their stance. Early statements talked about ‘all the nice people on Twitter’ observing the silence. This was toned down considerably, but the underlying feeling that those who are participating feel they are on the moral high ground was enough to put me off it.

    Plus the obvious point – you don’t react to being told to get out of a space by getting out of it – even temporarily.

    So far I feel fortunate in having avoided the sort of attention you and others have had on social media. I’ve had plenty of attacks on i-church though, from people who don’t like what I stand for whether it is organised religion, the C of E or the ordination of women. Because i-church is a space i have some control over, it would be possible simply to remove such criticism, pretend it never happened. However, that leads to the dilemma Ashley Beck mentions – do we rewrite or overwrite or delete the things that are less pleasant about our online lives, or do we deal with them?

  • Simon

    Sensible post, but am very surprised that you view technology simply as a “neutral” tool (I’m guessing you’ve looked at philosophy of technology during your PhD research). For me, all tools — whether of advanced technology or not — are formative of their users on a pre-reflective level (e.g. habits and so on), and so issues like social media use can’t just be reduced to questions of simple choice. The ‘switching off’ trend is a reaction to the very real (and felt) tendencies of certain kinds of virtual technology to contribute to existing patterns of social alienation. It’s not just about the technology, because the technology is in a certain way a symptom of an existing problem. But the technology can reinforce those problematic patterns that are already there. How people engage with it is indeed the issue, and I completely agree with you on rejecting binaries, but one can’t say that the technology is simply “neutral”. Reckon there’s more to it. (Sorry for such an academic reply).

  • Fantastic post Vicky, and totally agree in every way. The silence isn’t the answer, for so many reasons, and we need to be fully engaged with social media. We need to realise social media is real, not virtual – and still, so many people believe and even assume this myth is true.

    Also really agree people fail to take ownership and responsibility for their use of social media, and realise we can control it. People are more afraid of social media rather than open to it’s possibilities. Obviously there need to be safeguards and controls, and people need to be educated on how to healthily navigate social media, and have a healthy balance between online interactions and physical interaction – but social media is not to be feared, as many do. Well done again for standing up for the benefits of social media, and how we can navigate it healthily. Great post.

  • Kevin Davis

    Thank you for your courageous and insightful article Vicky. God bless you and your ministry.

  • Mark

    The thing that bothers me about #twittersilence is that there are some who feel that they have to comply for fear of being labelled something bad. Not particularly labelled by any one individual, but in any shape or form. Others have mixed views, but have felt the need to explain one way or the other. After all, the internet is about freedom and choice, so if anyone does not wish to take part, so what, and perhaps they shouldn’t even feel the need to explain themselves up front. I would sincerely hope that anyone who tweeted during this 24 hours is not taken to task because of it.

    Nobody is going to defend the people who sent such awful rape threats, and the ‘just block them’ early debate moved on from that, with interviewers asking that question in a round-about way, in order to not be labelled an idiot, but needed to ask. An example was, “It would be idiotic to ask, ‘why not just block them,’ but why not just block them?”
    It came across as the interviewer walking on eggshells. Some interviews have had me gnashing teeth! Such as, “Men see women as sex objects.” It could be said the person simply forgot to use the word “some” or even the phrase, “a minority of,” but not being pulled up on that in the interview was very annoying. There have been so many interviews now, I cannot give an exact example.
    There have been articles by female journalists with a slightly different take. One was that a tweeted bomb threat was made, so she immediately shutdown her laptop and went to the pub. I should say that she went on to support the action of needing to get rid of those responsible for the whole thing. Of course, many different views on all this, but none whatsoever, defending the idiocy of those who tweet such rubbish.

    The Del Harvey interviews, and reactions to them were interesting. It may all come down to the fact she looked miffed that the Channel4 presenter started with a criticism rather than saying “welcome.” She seemed to have a certain “I’ve seen it all before,” attitude, and got roundly criticised. However, I’ve watched both again (Channel4 and Newsnight) and she was being, perhaps too factual, almost boringly, rather than looking shocked at what had happened. In fact, I’d be astonished if she hadn’t seen any of this before, but had probably not had to face such a public reaction.

    Then there is the subject of the ‘Troll’ and its definition. In this particular case, these were vile rape and bomb threats, but it seems the word Troll is still being used simply for anyone with perhaps a misguided way of making a point, which is nowhere near the former. It has become difficult to know where there is a line drawn. Sometimes I feel I might want to make what I would see as an ironic, satirical or perhaps humourous reply to something, having judged the sense of humour of the person I’m replying to. What if I’ve mis-judged? To be clear, I’m not talking about rape or violent threats or swear words, which I would never do, but it now seems easy to be labelled a “Troll” which then implies ‘violent threats’. From what I’m seeing published, many are now far away from those initial violent threats.

    Following someone who has a voice in the media is very much a two-way thing. The media person can get articles seen much quicker and possibly gets many more replies on Twitter than they do in the comments section of their articles, but because of Twitter, gets more comments on the article than they would otherwise. Twitter gives the ‘follower’ much more immediate and personal reply access. Of course the downside, is that it’s all open to the idiots who have always been there. My understanding of Twitter though, is that they don’t even have to be a ‘follower’ and probably aren’t anyway. All of this won’t be news to you, but for the genuine follower it would be awful for an ill-judged or mis-placed (even mis-understood) comment to be used as an example of ‘abuse’. I have no idea if following a received tweet, the person asks the tweeter for clarification of what they meant, and if at that point it becomes clear there *was* a misunderstanding or it becomes clear it *was* abuse. I have seen examples where a comment made wouldn’t be out of place on Have I Got News For You, and enjoyed by the audience as satirical, but taken as an affront by the receiver for whatever the subject is – even non-personal. I should of course again be clear that the last paragraph has nothing to do with the rape threats which were obvious.

    What happens now? Twitter modifies its abusive reporting function, which is really what this was all about, outside of the criminality reported to the police, and others like me get a bit jittery about whether a reply might be taken the wrong way.

  • Dale Harries

    The main reason i personally don’t believe in this is it’s all about women. Try being a black guy / woman or a gay person online and your sure to suffer the same fate of abuse.
    I’ve already seen a very piecemeal approach by social networking sites where racist stuff is taken down within minutes but sexist / homophobic stuff seems to fly. I have also noticed that the moderation is very….. American with some things that would never be allowed in the UK let slip because of American freedom of speech.

    They need to expand #twittersilence so it covers far more than just women, that’s only dealing with half the problem.

  • mistersaxon

    Having had abusive and threatening replies to a tweet I made – death threats for the most part – I can say that the impulse to just GTFO for a while is huge and the effort to block the trolls is also significant (and in my case there were only 20 or so). I did engage one or two of the less rabid ones and a dialogue of sorts followed in which it became clear that they had already decided what I had said and who I was and no facts were going to change that. Straw men were resoundingly battered (as they usually are) and no-one ended up the wiser except that a number of my “unreal” friends on Twitter waded in to my defence at some cost to themselves in abuse as a consequence – an effort on their part that I found immensely humbling and gratifying.

    Had I simply packed up my bags and become a Twitter-quitter (even for a day or so) it would have blown over I am sure and I would have known that I had achieved nothing except the loss of a small measure of self-respect and I would have failed to gain a knowledge of what actual friendship and support look like in an online environment. But I know that if the volume of hatred had been a hundred or a thousand times what it was I would have been overwhelmed.

    What I hope comes out of this is better tools for handling this kind of situation. A Report Abuse button is good (but I suspect that they will need an advanced AI to analyse the volume of traffic it will garner) and the ability to delegate your account to friends of your choosing so that they can help you to block and report would also be a good, positive and affirming thing (although technically a nightmare to implement). Beyond that a few prosecutions for the bomb hoaxers and the rape threat folks would be a good warning and if Twitter tightened up their sign-up process it would make a HUGE difference. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be able to not be yourself on Twitter and I’m not saying that I necessarily trust Twitter to keep all user information secure and discreet but it would save a lot of time and effort if people weren’t quite so sure they would be anonymous when they abuse or threaten online.

    So do I think #TwitterSilence is a good plan? No, not really – in the big picture of Twitter it barely registered. Did it help those in the firing line? I really, really hope it did. I hope it made something that was probably very necessary into something that was also a statement about – as a minimum – not feeding the trolls.

  • Adrian Beavis

    Vicki, I have huge respect for you and your willingness to stand up to the bullies and give courage to others to do the same (as I commented on your other post), but it was not a choice “to be on Twitter or silence”. Twitter is just one platform (often not the best, often the least enlightening), and it was only the threat of boycott that brought about a rather late apology – it’s when Facebook and Twitter realise people can live without them they start to act.

    Which leads me onto the limits of social media – it is a tool which if used extremely wisely and sensitively, can lead to great connection, communication and even learning. But it is a public forum from which we must be able to retreat and be able to go off-line, to go away in an “unseen room” and be on our own privately before God (as Gordon MacDonald would say, “to order our private world”). If we can never be off-line we will become constantly concerned with what’s happening “on-line, over there” and be unable to be present with those right here in front of us, and we will find it impossible to engage with the vital Christian disciplines of silence, solitude, and meditation without tweeting about what a great prayer time we’ve had and posting pictures of it on Facebook (which some friends have recently done).

    In this sense fasting from Facebook, or Twitter, is no different from any other fast. We fast from good things (sinful things we shouldn’t be doing anyway!) that need to be kept in their proper place and under control because otherwise they can damage us.

  • Vicky, I completely agree with- meeting silence and trolling, with more silence is hardly going to be of any help. I know I’m a little late here, but sorry to hear about you getting trolled. You have my support in the fight against misogyny and cyberbullying.

  • I understand and agree with your points about technology, and many other inventions like the ones you mentioned, being a neutral tool that we have the choice and responsibility to handle well. What we do with the tools determine whether improvements and solutions will be made to reduce and/or eliminate society’s evils or whether these problems will continue to exist.

    Responsible driving was a great example, given the large instances of drunk driving and other reckless behavior on the road by motorists who are inconsiderate of other people’s safety as well as their own.