by Gareth Roberts
Thursday, 19
May 2022
Reaction
15:52

After 12 long hours, I have been freed from Twitter prison

One sarcastic tweet led to my temporary suspension
by Gareth Roberts
The offending tweet

I was sentenced to a twelve-hour Twitter ban yesterday. The ‘offending’ tweet was a very close paraphrase of comments made by two other users about the protesters from ‘Standing For Women’ in Manchester last Saturday. One of them said that the women involved were weedy, old and would soon be dead, the other that they were violent ‘fascists’. My framing was a sarcastic comment on how it seemed unlikely they could be both of those things.

But about 48 hours after I tweeted it, down came my sentence from Twitter. As many others have noted, it’s impossible to know from the automated message you get when this occurs exactly what you’ve done, or how it came about. My suspicion is that the phrases ‘soon be dead’ and ‘bloodshed’ set off the Twitter algorithm for ‘hateful conduct’. But then again, as Twitter’s potential new buyer Elon Musk has made plain recently, Twitter’s algorithms remain Twitter’s secret. And though AI may or may not be on the verge of developing sentience, I suspect it’s a long way from developing an appreciation of irony and a sense of proportion.

Many tweeters will know stories of arbitrary bans and suspensions of this kind. A friend of mine was handed a permanent ban, lost on appeal, for quoting a not-even-very-salty line from Much Ado About Nothing: ‘I wonder that you are still talking, Signor Benedick. No one marks you.’

Twitter simply does not have the capacity, nor I suspect the will, to police itself effectively. It has the power to shape information on a scale unprecedented in human history. The impact of the accidental creation of a new global public square is quite beyond the regulatory power of a few flaky computers and even flakier Californians.

It took centuries for Europe to settle after the advent of the printing press, with the extremely bloody religious conflicts and literal, not metaphorical, witch hunts that resulted. A long, slow process of trial and error resulted in a fragile consensus of mostly unspoken rules and civilities across the Western world.

Twitter marks a far greater transformation than the printing press, with potentially even more cataclysmic consequences. In the decade since it really took off, Western public life has become increasingly deranged, with denunciation, polarisation and the open exposure of many politicians and ‘experts’ as fools.

There is a dawning sense that governments are beginning to realise this, clumsily. In the UK, who is overseeing the incomprehensible enormity and complexity of this task? Nadine Dorries. And if the Tories should lose the next election, her shadow, Lucy Powell. Now, I quite like both of them — they certainly seem fun. But then so do Su Pollard and Christopher Biggins, and I wouldn’t put them in charge of tamping down the flames ignited by the most significant human innovation since the quattrocento.

We now face the prospect of idiotic Tory legislation requiring Twitter to censure ‘legal but harmful’ tweets or face heavy fines. This is the kind of backfiring legislation that only the British Conservative Party, with its shotgun forever pointed right at its own face could rustle up.

There I go again with the sarcasm and the metaphors. I’m sure you understand what I’m saying, but an algorithm or a 23-year-old, non-binary, Queer Studies-grad Twitter moderator slouched in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco? Perhaps not so much.

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Philip Stott
Philip Stott
1 month ago

“I’m sure you understand what I’m saying, but an algorithm or a 23-year-old, non-binary, Queer Studies-grad Twitter moderator slouched in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco? Perhaps not so much.”
Priceless!

Last edited 1 month ago by Philip Stott
Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
1 month ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

Sorry, was supposed to be a reply to Prashant Kodak.
Actually there is another way to moderate, already built in, it’s called a red flag. Each and every person can be part of the moderation team, rather than some ‘stupid’ computer, before being ratified by ‘Samantha’ (just my little radio 4 fantasy) It’s absolutely ridiculous that direct quotes of words, phrases or sentences, as used in the articles, can run afoul of the censor, when used by a person commenting on same said article.

Last edited 1 month ago by Tom Lewis
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

This is nonsense and will cost Unherd. I have also protested recently. I have never seen a ‘moderateable’ comment from you!

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago

This is a good mini-article, particularly the line about how deranged the West has become. Most of the craziness stems from media platforms like Twitter, but unfortunately it’s starting to leak into non-internet life too as witnessed by the seriousness with which politicians and educators treat daft concepts such as systemic racism, privilege, toxic masculinity, and transgenderism.
The invention of the printing press was followed by economic depression, conspiracy theories, witch hunts, war and plague.
My view on this is that most humans are fundamentalists in that they look for simple solutions to complex problems. Back in the 1600s it was ‘witches’, now it’s ‘white men’.

David McKee
David McKee
1 month ago

Never mind the algorithms, it’s the human moderators who are just downright weird. Guardian moderators, for example, are happy to let criticisms of right-wing personalities which are borderline libellous go through on the nod. But criticisms of left-wing figures, especially the pooh-bahs who wrote the piece being commented on? No chance.
I crossed the line at The Conversation recently. Some professor wrote a political polemic. Well, OK, it’s a free country. I was rather scathing, in a polite sort of way. That was deleted, and no appeal. Academics seem to have very thin skins, don’t they?

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
1 month ago
Reply to  David McKee

Anyone with the power to censor, or the censors on their side, will quickly develop a very thin skin. Funny, that.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
1 month ago

“This is the kind of backfiring legislation that only the British Conservative Party, with its shotgun forever pointed right at its own face could rustle up.”

Yes! Very good.

Enjoyed this article!

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

But you didn’t tell us what it was like in Twitter prison, Gareth.
Was there a giant bouncy ball that recaptured you if you escaped, like in The Prisoner?
Were Charles Aznavour’s greatest hits played on endless rerun?
Was the food good or was it greasy french fries chips and deep-fried haggis?
Were you forced to read The Complete Thoughts of Nancy Pelosi?
As a journalist, you should know the story lies in the details. 🙂

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

No, it probably just consisted of real life – just with less aggro and much less wasted time.

Andy aitch
Andy aitch
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Now THIS deserves to go at the top – in fact it’s better than the entire piece, comments included! (Yep: I’m wasting my time here too…)

John Wilkes
John Wilkes
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You have listed several quite awful horrors, except, what is wrong with haggis & chips? 5 million Scots can’t all be wrong (though they did vote for Nicola Sturgeon & Ian Blackford so maybe they can be).

Slopmop McTeash
Slopmop McTeash
1 month ago

Maybe, just maybe the lesson you should have learned is that itis best to steer clear of such toxic social media sites such as Twitter. Twitter is home only to vermin and egocentric busy-bodies.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago

That just doesn’t address the problem. Most organisations of any size including a huge number of social clubs now use Twitter. Updates for public transport services among many other are often given only on Twitter. It is a bit like saying, ‘steer clear of books (or notebooks’, or the radio etc).
It is an important communication technology whose abuse to promote a single political / ideological viewpoint should not be accepted.

Last edited 1 month ago by Andrew Fisher
Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 month ago

To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I would not wish to be posting on a social media site from which I was not banned.

Last edited 1 month ago by Martin Smith
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago

“…though AI may or may not be on the verge of developing sentience, I suspect it’s a long way from developing an appreciation of irony…”

The whole of humanity is being trolled by the nexus of social media AI algorithms, and you think AI doesn’t have a sense of irony?!

Giles Toman
Giles Toman
1 month ago

Why do people fuss on about “twitter storms” as if they really matter? It is a forum that people can choose to be on, to speak on, and to read, or not to read.
If you ignore it, then guess what? You get to carry on with your life without knowing or caring what all of these fools are twitting, twatting or tweeting about.

James Kirk
James Kirk
1 month ago

More fool you for engaging with twitter politics full of immature kids and trolls.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 month ago

Do the Tweeps and even know what is happening at Twitter? Their head office is abandoned and they spend a lot of time weeping and venting in their ‘slack rooms’ (read in their jimjams chilling at home). Definitely time for Musk to come and fire a bunch and slap the rest into shape.

Richard Powell
Richard Powell
1 month ago

As Gareth won’t let me see his tweets – I have absolutely no idea why he has blcoked me – I feel it’s a bit rich for him to complain about arbitrary moderation.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 month ago

Spoken like the great Etonian! Well done Sir!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago

Twitter marks a far greater transformation than the printing press, with potentially even more cataclysmic consequences.”
What greater than endless European wars during the Reformation? Gawd you really think your experiences are sooooo important. Just like the self centred kids you mock.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Yes, quite. The printing press was at least one of the causes of the 30 Years War which devastated much of Europe in the 17th century.