Seventh Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics →

Twitter and Power

  • AuthorNoah Berlatsky
  • Published Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
  • Comments3

Twitter is divisive, hurtful, unrepresentative and bad for feminism. So argued feminist and freelance writer Meghan Murphy in a piece a few weeks back. Murphy explains:

“While I would never argue that feminists stay off of Twitter and do tend to believe it’s a necessary evil, of sorts, if you are in media/writing/journalism, I don’t think it’s a place for productive discourse or movement-building. I think it’s a place where intellectual laziness is encouraged, oversimplification is mandatory, posturing is de rigueur, and bullying is rewarded. I think it’s a place hateful people are drawn towards to gleefully spread their hate, mostly without repercussion. And more than half the time I feel as though I’m trapped in a shitty, American, movie-version of high school that looks more like a popularity contest than a movement to end oppression and violence against women.”

Murphy goes on to say that she is routinely attacked and insulted on Twitter and her views are misrepresented. “What I’ve learned from Twitter is that it doesn’t matter what I do,” she says.  “My body of work doesn’t matter and my actual thoughts don’t matter. Not to those who have decided to hate me. What matters is to destroy and silence.”

Murphy’s arguments — that Twitter spreads disinformation, that it encourages bullying and abuse — have been echoed elsewhere (as in this article for example). The basic complaint, as in many critiques of the Internet, is that the forum and the platform encourage random people, with neither credentials nor accountability, to gossip, insult and gang up. It makes possible the cruel and arbitrary use of power.

I think this criticism is correct to some degree. Twitter can, and does, allow for abuse of power. Danielle Paradis, for example, lists a number of ways in which women are targeted for systematic harassment and abuse online, while Jill Filipovic discusses how, as a feminist online, she has been bombarded with online rape threats and harassment, leading in some cases to real-life stalking. In this context, the attacks by fellow feminists that Murphy discusses are (as she acknowledges) relatively minor, but still, they occur, and can be upsetting and painful. As someone who follows a fair number of feminists on Twitter, I’ve seen marginalized people with lots of followers dismiss and bully other marginalized people with fewer followers. It happens, and it shouldn’t.

But does it happen only on Twitter? Or, to put it another way, is Twitter really distinguished from other forums or other venues by abuse of power? In a piece for Al Jazeera, Sarah Kendzior argues that, in fact, mainstream media is often used abusively and cruelly. She points to recent articles by Emma Keller in the Guardian, and to a follow-up piece by Keller’s husband Bill in the New York Times, in which the couple attacked a woman named Lisa Bonchek Adams for writing about her experience with cancer on Twitter. She also mentions an article in Grantland in which author Caleb Hannan outed a trans woman, who subsequently committed suicide.

As Kendzior says, the Kellers and Hannan used their sanctioned platforms to hound and harass those without such platforms. Kendzior concludes, “Mainstream media cruelty is actually more dangerous, for it sanctions behaviour that, were it blogged by an unknown, would likely be written off as the irrelevant ramblings of a sociopath.” She adds that “the prestige of old media gives bigoted ranting respectability. Even in the digital age, old media defines and shapes the culture, repositioning the lunatic fringe as the voice of reason.”

Twitter, then, can actually provide a counter, or a check, on abuses in traditional media. The social media response to the Kellers’ ignorant sneering at a cancer sufferer prompted the Guardian to remove Emma Keller’s original column. Similarly, many trans women on Twitter (among other places) were able to express their anger and horror at Hannan’s piece, eventually prompting the Grantland editor to issue an official apology. In the past, official mainstream media spoke alone; it was the only voice and the only power. Now, though, Twitter and the Internet give people — like cancer survivors or trans women — a chance to speak for themselves.

This isn’t to say that Twitter has changed society’s power dynamics in some thoroughgoing manner. Again, the platform is often used for misogynist harassment of women or for racist harassment of minorities. But it’s also true that Twitter’s demographics skew somewhat differently than society, or online, as whole — the forum is very popular with young African-Americans, for example. Moreover, the Twitter platform, with its followers, retweets and hashtags, tends to create micro-communities in which commenters without traditional connections or platforms can gain large and influential followings. Writers and activists Mikki Kendall and Suey Park are two people who have become important cultural commenters in part because of their presence on, and influence within, Twitter. And, not coincidentally, Kendall and Park are both women of color — a group that has traditionally had difficulty getting their voices heard or acknowledged in mainstream outlets.

Which brings us back to Meghan Murphy. As Murphy says, her work and her writing provoke a great deal of resistance on Twitter. But that’s not (or not solely) because Twitter is mean or unfair or cruel. It’s because Murphy’s work and writing are really controversial. Specifically, Murphy is engaged in organizing against sex-work and prostitution; she’s an outspoken opponent of legalization.

On Twitter, there are lots of women who work in the sex industry. And they tend to speak up. Murphy sees this as abuse or bullying, and in some cases it may well cross that line. But it’s also an instance in which people who don’t necessarily get to voice their opinions, and who don’t necessarily have a platform otherwise, get a chance to tell Murphy that she is misrepresenting their lives when she speaks about their experiences.  Thus, Molli Desi Devadasi, an Indian sex worker, explained why she felt Murphy’s work excluded her:

“So apart from the many women who experience exploitation and abuse in sex work there are also many women who successfully negotiate the various sex work environments and find sex work to be interesting and meaningful work. These women do not deny the hazards nor do they deny the experiences of those who have suffered harm and hurt. These sex working women believe that their stories and experiences should also be heard and used to inform a better understanding of the diversity of sex work. When they are told that their experiences and opinions are not useful and that they do not properly understand the dynamics of sex work some of these sex workers have become quite angry at such contrived exclusion. They are also sometimes accused of being “not representative” or being “pimps” or “men”. These dismissals are hurtful and provocative; they also suggest that when someone doesn’t exist theoretically there is a tendency to obfuscate that possibility so as to protect the theoretical canon over contradictions that challenge its validity.”

Twitter is a place where Devadasi can talk (and has talked) directly to Murphy and tell her she’s doing it wrong.

As a white guy on Twitter, people will sometimes tell me I’m doing it wrong as well. I follow a number of feminist women of color, and sometimes one of them will tell me I’m an idiot. Because of the way Twitter works, one person telling me I’m an idiot will occasionally escalate into some non-negligible number of people joining in to also tell me I’m an idiot. This is unpleasant. Sometimes I may even think that it’s unfair; that I’ve been misrepresented, or that I’ve not been given a chance to speak my piece fully.

But the fact is, in most situations, most of the time, white guys like me get to speak our piece and then speak our piece again and then speak our piece some more. Usually, in most forums, it’s women and people of color, and most definitely women of color, who are told that their experiences don’t matter, and who have their words misrepresented.  Twitter is a place where, not always, but sometimes, power relationships can shift, and folks who are marginalized can make others listen. That’s not always comfortable. But discomfort, and especially the discomfort of those accustomed to power, isn’t always a bad thing.

Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian and is a correspondent for the Atlantic. He is working on a book about the original Wonder Woman comics.

3 Responses to “Twitter and Power”

  1. findingmyway365 says:

    ” Twitter is a place where, not always, but sometimes, power relationships can shift, and folks who are marginalized can make others listen. That’s not always comfortable. But discomfort, and especially the discomfort of those accustomed to power, isn’t always a bad thing.”
    Excellent summary statement, and I share your sentiments. As a “privileged, cis white male heterosexual,” I do a lot of squirming on twitter but believe I have learned and benefitted from the voices of others, especially those whose opinions differ from mine.
    People like Murphy prefer standard media because she can “walk away,” and not listen to voices of those who diasagree. Twitter and other social media have not only allowed for people who were previously voiceless to have a voice, but also to remain anonymous since many of them are at risk for retaliation. As unfortunately Molli Desi Devadasi has already experienced.
    I believe, Murphy would prefer a different medium, she probably would prefer a classroom where she is teacher and everyone else is a student. You either believe what she says or you don’t pass the class, no debate allowed.
    I greatly appreciate your article and even though I am “a little older,” I have embraced twitter, and believe despite some problems, it has enormous potential for good, allowing marginalized groups to speak for themselves rather than having others claim to speak for them. This is not only a good thing, it is a great thing.

  2. […]       “Twitter and Power” by Noah Berlatsky (Social Media, Sex Work, Privilege) 2/11/14 This struck me as a thorough, thoughtful, incisive, […]

  3. Emily W. says:

    I actually cringed when reading Meghan Murphy’s comments about Twitter. To say that a forum where ideas and articles are shared and talked about is “divisive, hurtful, unrepresentative and bad for feminism” is misinformed. Yes, social media is a breeding ground for ignorant comments, hate speech, and bullying, but this is a result of the vast amount of ideas and opinions being communicated in such a public space. Much of my knowledge of feminist, LGBTQ*, and other issues are in fact due to the information and articles shared on social media. I have partaken in many a movement and discussion online in order to better educate others about the injustices happening in the world. I have seen my fair share of negativity online, but that is what happens when so many differing opinions come into contact with each other. Like the author asserts, Murphy is attacked because she is controversial, not because they don’t respect her. To me, it is unfair to write off a forum filled with so much power to change the world just because there are people who disagree with you. If done in a polite and educated manner, one can even learn from opponents; if someone points out another’s abuse of privilege, they can learn from their mistake and not repeat it again. Many times online I have been asked to check my privilege, and in certain cases, I learned more about a topic or issue because someone disagreed with me. There are always going to be people in the world who are unfair or mean or cruel; to me it makes no sense to blame technology for fostering these negative actions. People define social media both positively and negatively, not the other way around.

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