Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Twitter, free speech, and activism.

A couple of days ago I pointed out Whale Oil’s post on ISIS and Palestinians and his call to kill all Muslims on Twitter. Giving oxygen to Whale Oil’s hateful rhetoric is obviously counterproductive and many people responded to me by saying it is best to ignore. And perhaps they are right. As a Kiwi Muslim, while it is hard for me to stomach it, I have enough experience with bigotry to know that these views are prevalent and accepted in NZ and there’s not much I can do about it by drawing more attention. However, WO (Whale Oil) has a close and personal relationship with our Prime Minister and several other National MPs including Judith Collins who has referred to him as a close friend. It is troubling to me that our nation’s lawmakers and leaders are so comfortable associating with a deeply troubled and bigoted man and that it is accepted as normal. What I presume John Key and others would say is that he is entitled to his view but that shouldn’t stop their friendship. Fair enough. I myself might be knowingly or unknowingly “friends” with people who have questionable positions but I certainly would not take political advice for them. And if I was a in a political position, I would not be texting them regularly and then deleting those texts. That is what troubles me. And that is why I tweeted that.

Following my tweets, some people tried to defend his post by saying that it was not about Muslims but about ISIS and Palestine and that I was trying to limit his free speech. Let’s make one thing clear, I have absolutely no power to limit his speech. I only have the power to criticize and that is my right. Some did try to point to legislation that could be used to stop him and were quickly corrected on the limits of the law. It shouldn’t be shocking to people, that a call to kill entire groups of people was upsetting to some folks and made them want to put a stop to it. Bigotry induced desires to KILL entire groups of people should make everyone upset. Because that post wasn’t *just* about ISIS and Palestine.

At one point a person tried to tag WO into my tweets, which I found highly offensive and frankly scary. I think one of the problems with Twitter is the misguided belief that it is an equal playing field for all voices. It absolutely is not. There are many many documentations of transgender people, women, PwD (people with disability), and PoC (people of colour) facing violent and distressing threats on Twitter and other social media. These threats include murder, rape, assault, and extremely degrading language. This is taken lightly by many because it is not considered “actual harm”. As someone who has faced milder versions of this, I can assure you it is absolutely “actual harm”. I have been harassed on Twitter, Facebook, and via email. I am utterly helpless to stop this harassment as it continues to this day and it takes a horrifying emotional toll. People have told me to leave twitter and stop engaging. I see this as equivalent to being told to stop wearing short skirts in order to not be raped. Why should I have to stop using a public platform? And while people do condemn those who make these threats, they don’t seem to want to make stopping them a priority. They, however, have no problems using their time and energy to tell me to leave social media – literally one of the only mediums available to me to speak out.

I digress.

Under no circumstances should WO have been tagged into that conversation. He is a dangerous person who actively tries to destroy people by finding out personal information about them and using it against them. This is well documented. And even if one were to be unware of the history, my deliberate exclusion of his handle should have been enough of an indication that he should not be involved in that conversation. This person, I am told, now has deleted that tweet.

This leads me to a broader topic of New Zealand Twitter and particularly the recent vitriol against political twitter users by some journalists and political commentators. There is anecdotal evidence that the most politically engaged users of Twitter fall into the “left wing” category. This has not been empirically tested at all and is only based on follower counts and number of tweets. Any number of social media experts can explain that follower counts is not an indication of engagement. However, most people who comment on Twitter as supposed “outsiders” are actually completely ignorant of how social media reach works and its use as a tool. So they make broad assumptions and write “provocative stories” designed to dismiss and poke fun at Twitter. Bryce Edwards, a political science lecturer and popular commentator on NZ Herald and on TV has twice used my tweets in his columns to say that I had been “complaining”. And I’m not the only one that has been subject to his subtle denigration. 

I have written in the past with Matthew Beveridge on the use of Twitter as source of stories. “Twitter reaction” has become fodder for stories not just in New Zealand but all around the world. Twitter is often first to break on the ground news and every day citizens have now become “reporters”. My personal observation is that this has led to resentments among the more established commentators and reporters. Anyone can now call themselves a “commentator” and that makes some people extremely uncomfortable. For example, 10 years ago hardly anyone was questioning media narrative and coverage about transgender people even though they had been literally dying because of their gender identity. Now that marriage equality is becoming a ‘settled matter’ in the developed western world, other LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) issues are starting to take prominence. Many people who fall in this category have been told to wait for their turn and they are now taking their turn and refusing to wait. Unsurprisingly this makes those who are in positions of power, those who have benefited for oppressing these groups, extremely uncomfortable.

Allies are forming. Intersectional feminism is gaining confidence. And one of the most important tools they/we have is social media. The biggest benefit of social media is our ability to form social movements and groups without the need to be in the same place physically. This means that lack of funds to travel, lack of time to invest is no longer a big barrier to engagement. One can have a full time job and still participate and submit a counterpoint publicly. And when large groups of people are mobilizing to educate and disrupt the narrative enough to the point that mainstream media is taking notice and having to report on it, it is very problematic for those in power. Calls for more PoC, women, LGBTQIA, PwD representation are only going to get louder and proportional representation is only bad news for one specific group – white CIS heterosexual able bodied males. 

If we were to have a hierarchy of privilege, there is absolutely no question that they are the most powerful in the New Zealand governance. Whether it is Cabinet, House of Representatives, board rooms, Chief Executives, media, business, they are the ones in power.  And so it is no surprise that this group has the biggest problem with alternative voices on Twitter. That is not to say they are the only culprits by no means at all. But they are undoubtedly the majority. As for why, my explanation is that if it isn’t motivated by explicit hate and bigotry, is it absolutely motivated by fear, fear of diluted power. One of the Fairfax journalist who is particularly peeved has been Tweeting non-stop about this:

What’s particularly hilarious is that gossip is not even limited to Twitter. In my experience, everyone gossips – yes, including men. The fact that people are forming social groups on Twitter and that it leads to the occasional gossip should not be surprising or of any concern to him. I have no doubt people say things about me behind my back – I tweet a lot of ridiculous things. If people want to gossip, they can. People gossip about people in real life so why should social media be any different? What is interesting here is the use of the word “toxic” and “cleanse”. He obviously wants to get a reaction out of some people because those words are deliberate. I don’t know if he did or not but it is highly disturbing to see someone who has access to one of the most powerful communication platforms in New Zealand – Fairfax – try to shut down opinions of the general public on Twitter.

On Twitter!

Twitter, which has been declared a left wing echo chamber, apparently needs cleaning out because the conversation is not to his liking. How ironic and how pitiful. Schrodinger’s Twitter has managed to be utterly pointless and all powerful all at the same time depending on whether they have a story they need to write and they can’t think of a topic. The discomfort that he is feeling isn’t limited to him.

White feminists are being forced to think about other kinds of misogyny and while there is some resistance, there is a lot of positive collaboration happening. I am hopeful. As a PoC feminist, I think allies are important. And there are a good number of cis white heterosexual men on Twitter and in life are helpful allies. But the sheer number of people from this group who don’t want to listen, change ingrained behaviours that are proven harmful, and make room for alternate viewpoints that challenge the status quo is apparent.

I was not always this person. When I was 15, I firmly believed being gay was wrong. I had been raised to believe that and in fact I had such a sheltered life that I didn’t even know gay people existed before I was 15. Obviously that changed and when I made the effort to think about it on a logical and rational level, I was forced to abandon my utterly bigoted beliefs. When I try to think about this change, I don’t recall feeling personally attacked when people tried to explain to me why my beliefs were misguided. Instead of questioning the people and their experiences, I questioned my religion and my faith. If my faith could not accommodate accepting people as they want to be, as who they are, with all the equal rights and freedoms that I had, then I had to rethink my own worldview. But most people don’t want to do the same because faith is seen as irreproachable and the absolute truth despite the fact that there are thousands of religions in the world with different interpretations of God. And those who are not guided by faith are guided by some other ingrained value that they are unwilling to question. In the end it is all the same.

I am not going to lie, there were a couple of extremely uncomfortable years as I tried to reconcile the accepted bigoted beliefs that were prevalent in my faith and my rational conclusions of the world. And I think my views are still being challenged. Twitter is the first place I learned about non-binary folks. After being raised and having lived in a society that are so rigidly divided by genders with particular gender norms ingrained into my brain, getting out of that viewpoint took some thought. There were times I may have said things that were probably not the right things to say and there were times I assumed gender identity of people that was not right. I was wrong. There is no way around it. And I’m still learning. I go about my fairly comfortable life, working, Tweeting, instagramming lunch like very other millennial and sometimes someone writes a post on chronic illness/pain or struggle with depression/anxiety and I am forced to think about how privileged I am – this is a good thing. This forces me to think about the kind of changes I want to see in our society to ease the suffering. As a student of public policy, it forces me to think about people I wouldn’t think to think about first. Social media gives me the chance to testify and amplify. I can share my experiences and challenges of trying to be seen as an equal member of the society and I can amplify the voices who are facing other kinds of experiences and challenges. And then, there was also this: 

What he fails to understand is perfectly summed up by his colleague at NZ Herald:

Social media is not an absolute safe place but it is a great place to bring and challenge voices. The idea that nobody can be corrected or that groups shouldn’t create rules or conventions to make it safe and minimize the risk, is ludicrous and in no way is "bullying". We are not going to be tagging in dangerous people into our conversations just because we are talking about them. We are going to point out when some speech is offensive and dangerous. What we do will make certain privileged groups uncomfortable. Change has never been comfortable. So no, you can’t ‘cleanse Twitter’. And no, ‘Twitter’ isn’t toxic, denigration of marginalized groups for speaking out is. Here’s the thing – if you don’t like it, you are more than welcome to show yourself out. They will no doubt continue to put you on TV and radio and print your columns and people who look like you and represent your interests will continue to run this country. The rest of us don't have that luxury. 


  1. If the Oily One had written the same thing about Jews, he could be rightly paid a visit by the Wiesenthal Centre and the ADL.

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