Pile-ons, Responsibility and the Sin of Sodom
A few months ago, Helen Lewis wrote on Twitter:
"Above a certain follower count, your twitter feed is basically a newspaper, and I wish there was a voluntary code of conduct to reflect that. No amplifying stuff you haven't personally checked is true; and no hostile quote-tweeting random people with a handful of followers"
The whole notion got me thinking about what a voluntary code of conduct for Twitter users would (or should) look like. At the time I jotted down a few disorganised thoughts in a thread:
The idea wouldn’t go away and I kept thinking that someone really ought to try and explore the ethical issues that come with being a random schmo with a large online platform. I asked Helen if she wanted to lead the charge, but she’s writing a book and said she didn’t feel any need to own this project. So here we are.
Not about rules
This isn’t about what Twitter itself allows users to do or say. With Elon Musk poised to take over Twitter, promising to loosen the platform’s already-lax policies, rules might be irrelevant soon.
This project will, I think, try to figure out what (if any) ethical obligations come with having a big social media following. Ethical obligations are complicated and can overlap and conflict with each other. I’m resistant of being labelled a ‘journalist’ because that label seems to come with a bunch of ethical obligations.
But let’s start with where she started: pile ons.
The Pile On
I’m guessing most readers of this newsletter have never experienced a pile-on. How bad can it be?
Well, it can be pretty bad. I’ve never been REALLY in the crosshairs but I’ve had a few minor incidents, usually when I criticise some ‘Great Man’. Dozens or hundreds of tweets, DMs, emails, Facebook messages, comments on my personal Instagram, LinkedIn and other platforms. In the past I’ve had letters and complaints sent to my employers demanding that I’m fired.
These messages are usually abusive, calling me an idiot, a shill, a tool of ‘them’, a Zionist stooge, a leftist moron etc. Sometimes they’re more directly threatening. Often they mock my appearance. Sometimes they’re racist. A few times I’ve been sent image edits of my face on murder victims or being put in a crematorium at a Nazi death camp.
Compared to many targets of pile-ons, my experiences are relatively mild. I’m a straight man, so I’ve gotten very few rape threats. Nobody has ever turned up outside my door threatening me, or sent me anything in the physical mail.
Yet there’s something oddly unsettling about it anyway. I find myself shaken, nervous, vulnerable in the face of a wall of abuse from strangers popping up all over my online footprint.
And this is me. I’ve faced physical violence at protests and death threats from terrorist groups with the means to make good on their words. I’m a battle-hardened keyboard warrior from before the Eternal September who’s seen it all and should have skin a foot thick by now. But the tidal wave of angry, haughty, dismissive people jeering, mocking, threatening and well-acktcully-ing always shakes me anyway.
And like I said, my pile-ons have been small, brief affairs, nothing like the torrent of continual abuse some people face.
I guess my guiding premise here is that pile-ons are usually bad. Call me a moderate, a centrist dad, a wimp not prepared to fight for what I believe in. But I believe psychological and emotional harms are real harms and, on balance, I prefer not to harm people even when I oppose them.
The Sorites Paradox: When does a pile become a pile (on)?
The Greek philosopher Eubulides posed a famous problem:
Imagine a heap of sand. How many grains of sand does a typical heap contain? Let’s say a million.
OK, now imagine you take away one grain from the the heap. Is it still a heap? Of course it is.
What about another grain. Still a heap? Yes, obviously. Now one more…. when does a heap stop being a heap?
Equally, how many grains of sand do you need before they become a heap?
The Sorites paradox isn’t really a paradox, but it’s an illustration of collective effects. The line between individuals and a collective is fuzzy and hard to define. The same is true of the line between individual actions and a collective or supervenient phenomenon.
The Sin of Sodom (no, not that one)
In the Book of Genesis, the city of Sodom is destroyed by God due to its inhabitants’ “wickedness”.
The story showcases one particular act of wickedness: an attempted gang rape of two male visitors. In Christian thought, that was enough to say the sin of Sodom must be… not rape, for some reason, but homosexuality, giving rise to the word ‘sodomy’.
The Jewish tradition treats Sodom a bit differently. The Talmud relates a series of legends about Sodom that depicts a city built on xenophobia and exploiting the poor and weak. One memorable example of how the people of Sodom treated strangers is related below:
[In Sodom, if] anyone had a row of bricks, each of the people of Sodom would come and take one brick and say to him “I am taking only one” and they would keep doing this until none remained.
And when there was anyone who would put garlic or onions out to dry, each and every one of the people of Sodom would come and take one and say to him: “I only took one!”
A brick or an onion were small, almost valueless items. Stealing one wasn’t worthy of the attention of the law. Nevertheless, acting individually but en masse, following the culture and conventions of the town, the residents left new people penniless. And if the victim confronted any of the thieves, each one would reply “but I only took one!”
Coordinated or Organic Action
Mass online harassment usually isn’t centrally organised. Occasionally you’ll see someone with a large platform saying outright “Go tell X what you think of her dumb ideas!”, or some poor soul being targeted by anons on the chans, but those situations are the significant minority.
On Twitter, what mostly happens is someone writes a Bad Tweet. People relentlessly Quote-Tweet the bad tweet, mocking it. Eventually, people with large numbers of followers do the same. That exposes the Bad Tweeters to millions of people, 99% of whom do nothing.
But one in a thousand of these millions does more. Some of them are just pugilistic types who enjoy a good Internet fight. Some of them see that dunking on the Bad Tweet gets engagement and they want in. Some of them usually don’t do anything, but this particular Bad Tweet upsets or angers them.
Most of these, too, confine themselves to quote-tweeting or replying to the Bad Tweet, perhaps in harsh terms. Those thousands of tiny, understandable and basically OK reactions all add up into a heap when experienced by the target.
And an even smaller group sometimes takes it further and move to full-on harassment, online and off.
Knowledge and Responsibility
So it’s not enough just to say “I didn’t tell anyone to harass her” or “I didn’t know anyone would harass her”, because at this point anyone with a large following should know that just exposing someone can be enough to cause harassment.
Clearly, though, a discourse where you just can’t talk about other people, their ideas and their actions isn’t really much of a discourse at all. Of course we’re going to share things we agree with, discuss things that challenge us and refute stuff we think is wrong. Of course, often — perhaps usually — other factors will outweigh concerns about pile-ons and online harassment.
Here are some factors I try to consider when deciding whether to amplify something I disagree with in order to debunk or criticise it:
How big is this person’s platform?
Do they have 50 followers or half a million? If their social media following is small, are they important or influential in other ways, eg a candidate for office, a politician, a TV star?
How far did this person’s take, comment or action reach?
Is this a currently-obscure comment that deserves wider exposure due to the person’s importance? Is it something that’s gone massively viral despite their normally low profile? Or neither?
Does it illustrate a broader point?
Forum comments etc can sometimes help tell a story about how a community is reacting to an issue, spreading a conspiracy theory etc. Is the whole more than the sum of its parts?
[ADDED] Did this person contact me first?
If someone replies to me on Twitter, is that a bit like a letter to a newspaper? If they’re talking about me, does that give me a moral right to reply? Even if so, is it worth it in this case?
Rules I will try to follow (first draft!)
Taking this all into account, here’s my first draft of the rules I’ll try to follow when thinking about amplification, outrage and pile-ons on Twitter:
It’s very easy to fire off a tweet in seconds that can have major implications for other people. I will try to think before I tweet.
Psychological and emotional harms are real harms. I will remember that I can harm people on this platform.
I am not responsible for the actions of people who read my tweets. But I am aware of how online autonomous action can develop organically, and will bear this in mind before I tweet.
I will try to ensure I am fighting the bad things, not primarily spreading the bad things. I won’t amplify bad things just for the sake of amplification.
If the identity of the author is not relevant to my point, I will try to censor/redact names and other identifiable information, but with the awareness that a motivated person can still probably find this information if they want to.
Some things are so bad, so important, so wrong, or so dangerous that they override any concerns about pile-ons, even acknowledging the harms they cause.
What do you think? Are these too restrictive, too permissive or about right? Would you be comfortable to sign onto this if it was a section in a voluntary Twitter Code of Conduct?
I’ve opened comments for all and would be interested to hear your thoughts.
Your point about being aware of causing harm while not being specifically responsible is spot on. It certainly applies to all channels of mass influence. Certainly those demonizing others and “rhetorically” call for violence as a response.
Really great column Arieh - one of your best in the "morality" genre. Articulate, thoughtful, engaging and reflective. You've given me a great set of rules/values to reflect upon myself while tweeting to my measly few hundred followers.