The essay I wish Bret Stephens had written about Twitter and online harassment

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has sworn off using Twitter because people use it to harass and attack others [New York Times]. In a recent essay, Stephens positions an interest in civility in public discourse against a dark fatalism about technology, and it doesn’t offer a lot of hope about technology… or even people. Some excerpts, below:

… Technology doesn’t merely service needs. It also teaches wants.  …

… Twitter’s degrading uses tend to overwhelm its elevating one. …

… Bigotry flourishes on Twitter, since it offers the bigot the benefits of anonymity along with instantaneous, uncensored self-publication. It’s the place where their political minds can be as foul as they want to be…

… Politics, like eros, can open the way to the elevation of our souls. Or it can do the opposite. Time for people who care about politics and souls to get off Twitter.

Harassment is a serious problem. According to a 2015 study, 40 percent of online users reported experiencing online harassment [Pew Research Center]. A separate survey in 2016 found that 76 percent of women under 30 reported harassment [Guardian]. It’s a problem that needs people “who care about politics and souls” to solve, to be clear, because it’s an evolving phenomenon that’s larger than the sum of its parts. There are smart people who are working to find ways to end it from a technical and design perspective, but it’s a much broader problem that isn’t only about that. It’s also about our collective willingness to engage in solving systemic problems that are bigger than our Twitter feeds.

I wanted to see if The New York Times had published anything about this human-centered approach to combating online harassment. Below is a list of a few articles which were published in the past year that touch on the complexity of the issue which—yes— goes beyond Twitter:

It’s clear that people do need to engage if we want to better understand what’s happening, because it’s a complex problem that involves both protected forms of free speech and unprotected forms of hate speech. It touches on governance, parenting, society, philosophy, culture—you name it, and online harassment has changed it. As researcher Caroline Sinders recently wrote, “a big challenge with understanding harassment is understanding irony — a major tenet of the internet is trolling culture” [Vice]. There’s just too much for any one person to unpack. We need to act collectively.

I don’t find it very helpful to condemn technology in a broadly prescriptive manner, dismissing our ability to change both it and ourselves. It’s half the story about social media and the worst part of it. If we prescribe ourselves to an internet where harassment grows stronger simply because we’ve decided we can’t stop it, we’re giving up. Whether we use Twitter or not, it’s on us to consider the future of online harassment, and that’s the other half of the story. “The internet isn’t a healthy place unless everybody feels safe to create, to communicate,” Mozilla’s Liz Hull told the Verge in June [Verge]. We can all work on creating that healthy place, together.

That’s where we have been, and that’s where we must go next. So here’s the essay I wish I read today: Twitter’s persistent negligence might be conditioning us to hate speech. How do we protect the valuable aspects of social media in supporting online, free and public participation in politics and policymaking? If you’ve seen any great research or thoughts on this, throw it in the comments with a link.

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