Twitter is no longer a scrappy social media upstart.
But lately, the popular microblogging platform is becoming so toxic that prominent people like Lindy West, Ruby Rose, and Millie Bobby Brown are jumping ship. Twitter’s leadership has responded to criticism of abusive discourse on the service with a “healthy conversation” initiative that includes updates to the Twitter Rules and adjustments to the presentation of the timeline, replies, and other aspects of the user experience.
That’s led to cries that Twitter, along with other social media companies, is stifling free speech. If you’ve seen a proliferation of red Xs in Twitter profiles, that’s why. Conservatives are tagging themselves, claiming they’ve been “shadowbanned” — hidden from the rest of the Twitter community, but not actively suspended — for their political views.
None other than Terms of Service Violator-in-Chief Donald Trump weighed in. “Social media is totally discriminating against Republican/conservative voices,” he claimed in an Aug. 18 tweet.
One group of people, however, actually is being silenced by Twitter’s decisions around community moderation, and the problem is getting worse. Though the Twitter Rules specifically prohibit “hateful conduct” on the basis of “gender identity,” trans people are experiencing much more abuse on the platform. When they report hate speech to moderators, nothing happens.
The rise in transphobia on Twitter reflects a larger social shift. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) have always engaged in aggressive transphobia online. Doxing transgender people like Victoria Darling (@TransEthics) and users of private social media groups is one tactic, as is inundating people — mostly trans women — with harassment across multiple social media platforms.
The epidemic has been fed by the widespread legitimization of transphobic attitudes. Britain’s growing “gender critical” movement, fueled by TERF ideology, has become a part of the mainstream — with publications like The Guardian giving space in its columns to known hatemongers like Julie Bindel. In the United States, The Atlantic recently provided known transphobe Jesse Singal with a platform to spread misinformation about trans children.
Proponents of transphobic attitudes — the type who allege trans people are dangerous to children — claim that “TERF is a slur.” This group insists they are being forcibly labeled with a descriptive term designed to differentiate them from other types of radical feminists and that this constitutes “hate speech.” They also complain that “cis” is a slur, and fill their Twitter profiles with comments like “women don’t have penises” and coded language recognizable to fellow transphobes.
The tolerance for transphobic rhetoric has concrete consequences — not just in the form of bathroom bills. Sexual assault and homicide rates in the trans community, especially for women of color, are shockingly high.
Earlier this month, a trans student at an Oklahoma school was forced to leave not just the school but her town after a hateful parents group on Facebook outed her and subjected her family to a deluge of hateful comments, calling her a “half-baked maggot” and waving the threat of a “good sharp knife.” The threats were so specific and abusive that the school closed for two days to evaluate security options.
On Twitter, the service is compounding transphobic abuse by failing to identify ways its own moderation policies can be leveraged for harassment. Transphobic “griefers” — people exploiting Twitter’s own anti-abuse tools to commit abuse — are organizing mass mobs to harass trans people, a tactic known as brigading. Their tactics have successfully suspended several trans Twitter users and subjected others to account restrictions.
Those include journalist Danielle Corcione, suspended for what was obviously a joke: “If any TERFs like or retweet this, I’m shoving my foot up your ass.” They were reinstated following press coverage of the debacle. Other tweets that have been targeted are even more mild-mannered. One user was banned for saying “Terfs are always finding their way to my mentions I am tired,” while another quipped, “It’s German for ‘the terf the.’” For those who don’t speak German, it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the oft-used phrase, “Die TERF die.”
Over 100 people commented on a Twitter thread started by Anita Sarkeesian in mid-August, complaining of similar issues on their own accounts or those of friends.
Activist and artist Nora Reed of projects like @ThinkpieceBot and @infinite_scream, for example, tested a theory that griefers were seeking out and flagging “TERF” tweets with: “give terfs some punch” and “mix up the punch that you made for the terf real good and give them straws to make sure they do not choke.” These polite offers were reported, and Reed’s account was limited until they deleted the offending tweets; evidently, TERFs lack an appreciation for beverages and absurdist humor.
The underlying pattern is demonstrably obvious to many trans users on Twitter. Transphobes are searching for keywords like “TERF,” especially adjacent to words that could be misconstrued to mean something violent, and misreporting users. Twitter is limiting or suspending them, effectively making it impossible for trans people to openly talk about trans-exclusionary radical feminists online.
That has dangerous implications for a marginalized community. Trans people are unable to warn each other about risks like bad actors in the community, dangerous medical providers, and the rise of hateful ideology. Not being able to speak out on Twitter also strips trans people of educational opportunities, including disseminating information to fight transphobia, mentoring people who are questioning their gender identity, and building cross-community solidarity among trans people of color and disabled trans people. With griefers targeting activists, people leading hashtags and organizing events — like the Trans Day of Remembrance — could also be at risk.
With so many trans people living in secrecy and isolation, depriving them of community on Twitter cuts people off from support, important connections, and even love.
Twitter claims to be concerned about abusive activities on its platform. But it’s also holding high level and confidential meetings to discuss moderation policy with conservatives, including GOP leadership, to appease the very people who are making Twitter so dangerous for some users.
Brigading doesn’t just affect trans users. Earlier this month griefers came for Asian-American journalist Sarah Jeong after she was appointed to the editorial board of the New York Times. The appointment enraged misogynists and racists who felt she didn’t deserve the honor. Her harassers combed through her tweets, searching for something “reverse racist” to report — and finding it. They publicized sarcastic tweets like “#cancelwhitepeople” and “Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling hoblins?”
These tweets date from years ago, but they were used to claim that Jeong was “racist,” forcing the Times to respond to the manufactured controversy. Interestingly, Jeong had written about online harassment tactics like this in her 2015 book, The Internet of Garbage.
In 2015, a series of outraged white men came for Bahar Mustafa, a college student in London involved in her student union. When she organized an event for marginalized students and said “if you’re a man and/or white PLEASE DON’T COME,” they searched her Twitter for “hate speech” like “#Misandry” and “#KillAllWhiteMen,” claiming she was “silencing” them.
Some have started using other turns of phrase to stay one step ahead of the mob. One example includes: “transphobes exploiting feminism as an alibi for hate” (TEFAH). This conscious evolution of language use reflects a chilling effect — putting the burden on a community that’s fighting for their right to exist.
To create a more meaningful culture shift, Twitter needs to acknowledge that marginalized stakeholders should be in the room during policy discussions regarding its rules and their enforcement. And the service needs to take a hard look at how its anti-abuse tools can be warped and turned against trans and other marginalized users on the service. If Twitter wants to “spark a global conversation,” it must come to the understanding that “we should hear both sides” ignores inherent power imbalances; when one side is trying to kill the other, perhaps it doesn’t need to be aired.
Image via Twitter