One sarcastic tweet led to my temporary suspension
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.