Tag Archives: trolls

Twitter is under no obligation to host Chuck Johnson’s witch hunts

chuck johnson

I don’t always mind if people invoke the C word when referring to an instance in which a major social media or search platform bans a particular person from posting to it. Yes, Facebook or Twitter banning a user does not meet the technical definition of censorship given that they aren’t government entities and, as private corporations, are under no obligation to host anyone’s speech. But with some of the largest internet platforms — companies like Facebook and Google — wielding near-monopolistic influence in their respective industries, it’s not difficult to imagine troubling scenarios in which that influence is used to suppress speech. Last year, Metafilter founder Matt Haughey detailed the devastating impact that came when Google harshly punished his website within its index; his web traffic was eviscerated, resulting in him having to lay off staff members in order to stay afloat. It’s likely that a domain banning on Facebook would have a similarly calamitous effect on a news site. It’s possible to construct an argument, then, that these large social platforms should be more circumspect in banning users than, say, the New York Times is when deciding whether to ban commenters.

That being said, there are plenty of instances in which a social platform is not only justified in banning a user, but under moral obligation to do so. If we’ve learned nothing else from the GamerGate controversy that swept the web last year, it’s that open platforms like Twitter can be used to quickly form mass pseudonymous hordes who then lob death threats at targeted users, usually women. We’ve been treated to horrific screen grabs of Twitter users promising the most violent, misogynistic acts imaginable, often alongside the victim’s home address. This has led to calls for Twitter to improve its abuse prevention methods, methods that even Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admits are inadequate.

This brings us to Chuck Johnson, the conservative “journalist” whose Twitter account was permanently banned today. For the uninitiated, Johnson wrote for several prominent conservative news outlets before striking out on his own and launching Gotnews.com. Since then, he’s spewed some of the most misogynistic, homophobic, and racist vile imaginable, often under the guise of journalism. Within mere hours of the Amtrak train derailment that tragically killed eight passengers this month, Johnson, with virtually no actual information as to the circumstances of the crash, took to Twitter to claim that the engineer steering the train was black and that the derailment was a direct result of his affirmative action hiring. When it later emerged that the engineer was actually white, with nary an apology he shifted his attack, claiming that the engineer’s homosexuality made him predisposed to mental illness and then suggesting that was the cause.

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Of course being hateful and wrong, by itself, may not justify a permanent ban, but Johnson’s behavior went beyond merely marginalizing minorities. His “investigations” are often organized witch hunts that expose victims, many of whom aren’t public figures, to threats of violence. He has a predilection for declaring rape victims as liars and then offering bounties for identifying information, which he then publishes. After falsely claiming that two New York Times reporters had published the address of police officer Darren Wilson, Johnson then published the home addresses of those two reporters. The resulting death threats drove them from their homes. In the wake of the deeply flawed Rolling Stone reporting on campus rape at the University of Virginia, Johnson published the full name and other identifying information of Jackie, the potential rape victim at the center of the story. He then followed up that “reporting” by publishing a photo of Jackie, which then turned out to be a photo of a completely different rape victim, one who was then exposed to online harassment.

If you define “terrorism” broadly as using the threat of physical violence to silence particular kinds of speech, then it’s not hyperbolic to conclude that Chuck Johnson and his GamerGate brethren are terrorists. Their threats are clear: If you, a minority, use your voice to expose instances in which you’ve been marginalized, then we will threaten your privacy and cause you to live in fear for your safety. For that reason, Twitter is under no obligation to host and be a party to Chuck Johnson’s hate speech. In fact, it’s obligated not to.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Why Twitter is such an ideal platform for trolls

twitter troll

Though the term “#GamerGate,”  what can only be described as an amorphous battle over issues ranging from misogyny in the gaming community to “ethics” in gaming journalism, has proliferated across nearly all media platforms, both online and off, most of its intensity and raw anger has been concentrated on Twitter. And that’s not a coincidence. For all that is wonderful about Twitter — and I do love the platform — there are few tools on the internet so conducive to trollery, allowing a small number of individuals to spread mass hate and havoc aimed at increasingly fearful targets.

Slate’s David Auerbach touches on one of the reasons for this: that Twitter’s immediacy and 140 character limit encourages users to quickly dash off barbed tweets that, because of their brevity, lack subtlety and therefore must resort to absolutism.

After cartoonist K. Thor Jensen got much flak for tweeting that all gamers should die, he apologizedand concluded on this wise note: “Hashtag activism is an ineffective way of pursuing those goals. It literally gets you nowhere but pointless arguments with turds like me.” Even Jensen’s attitude that “Ed Champion has always been human shit and should be flushed down a toilet,” however accurate, would probably be phrased a bit more tactfully and substantively anywhere else. Twitter is a verbal minefield that encourages harassment while discouraging productive conversation, bringing out the worst in everyone from Leigh Alexander to Richard Dawkins to Donald Trump (not hard, admittedly).

This is all true, but there are other platforms that allow you to dash off opinions without much thought or effort. To understand why trolls thrive on Twitter you must first consider why they are less effective on other platforms. Facebook, for instance, is a much bigger target in terms of audience yet #GamerGate supporters have had limited effect there. Facebook, unlike Twitter, forces users to use their real names, which at least mutes somewhat the vehemency that can spring forth when you know you won’t be held accountable for your actions. But, perhaps even more important, Facebook has terrible discovery functionality, making it difficult for a swarm of a few dozen trolls to monitor for new mentions of their pet issue and pounce all at once, thereby magnifying their voice. If you’ve tweeted at all about #GamerGate within the last few weeks, chances are you’ve experienced a drive-by barrage of @mentions from Twitter accounts with only a few dozen followers each, many spouting off a few generic pro-GamerGate catchphrases and supportive links. Within minutes, they’re gone, on to swarm another user like a cloud of gnats. After I tweeted a fairly anodyne tweet to a ClickHole article about #GamerGate, for instance, this tweet appeared in my @mention stream:

gamergate tweet

This guy and a few other dozen like him are simply sitting at search.twitter.com with #gamergate plugged into the search bar and hitting the refresh icon. Few other networks offer this kind of real-time discoverablity.

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Twitter is also a magnet for trolling because it sets all interactions as equal. On Facebook, it’s easy for me to toggle my account so only my friends can comment on my post, and if a vituperative comment does make its way onto my wall, I can delete it. On Twitter, anyone can @reply you, and the @replies appear in reverse chronological order, giving preference to those able to swarm you with the most messages. And you can’t delete a reply on Twitter like you can on Facebook (and virtually every other platform) because the reply exists on the commenter’s profile, not the profile on which he’s commenting. While you can mute or block a user, the initial damage has already been done, and you know that those hateful tweets will continue to exist for others to see even if you can’t.

Of course, trolls also like to hang out in article comment sections and message boards, but article comment sections are relegated to the bottom of articles, skipped over by most users, and easy to ignore. Message boards aren’t visited by the majority of people and are, if moderated well (and the best boards are), adept at weeding out and banning trolls.

All that being said, the attributes that make Twitter a magnet for trolls also make it great for news and entertainment. I love hearing  about a news event that interests me and then utilizing search.twitter.com to see real-time commentary and jokes. The reason news out of Ferguson proliferated on Twitter and not Facebook is because it was easy to find and surface tweets from on-the-ground protesters. In some ways, the victims of trolls are the collateral damage of a wonderful real-time conversation ecosystem. The question is whether these benefits outweigh the real damage caused when vulnerable users are threatened with rape and death. And the worst supporters of #GamerGate are making it increasingly difficult for this question to be ignored.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via Social News Daily