Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Lynched on Twitter

Last week, a sarcastic twitter reply I posted two years ago was picked up by an account called Blue Check Watch, looking for verified twitter accounts disparaging white people. As a result, my account has become inundated by a hybrid human-bot army of white supremacist trolls. Most responses accused me of anti-white racism, completely missing what I thought was obviously a sarcastic tone. Sadly, many of the attacks are really nasty and ad-hominem. One user posted "Why do people who say this always look like this?", alongside my twitter profile photo. Others are explicitly anti-semitic messages that do not bear repeating here. Ominously, I received an email from Twitter informing me that they have investigated my tweet, flagged for violating their TOS and "have not taken any action at this time."

Writing my snarky tweet two years ago, I was a bit uncertain whether it was within the bounds of social acceptability. A white guy telling another white guy that white guys are "the worst", was intended to poke a bit of fun at the self-flaggelation associated with progressive politics. There is only so much self-censorship one can do while still remaining authentic. In a surprising twist, my tweet was offensive to a group I hadn't even thought about in a way I could not have predicted, two years after the fact.

Twitter lynchings are not new, but it's different when it happens to you. It has not had any serious consequences (yet?), and until it does, I will continue to view this as a funny story, and not something truly traumatic, as it is often framed in the press. Still, this experience serves as a good reminder of a few points:

  1. Twitter's UI for threaded conversations is terrible, and hardly anyone of my virtual lynch mob even bothered to look to the tweet I was responding to.
  2. My tweet was five words, twenty four characters. It was meant to be pithy, because that is how twitter works. But brief posts beget brief responses, which is fine between friends, but not fine when the whole world is watching.
  3. Relatedly, sarcasm is hard to convey in this situation. Only two responses suggested that maybe I was being sarcastic, imploring my attackers, "Don't be lazy."
  4. The fact that tweets have no expiry date means anything you have ever posted can be used against you in surprising ways. It took two years for my tweet to be picked up. James Gunn's incriminating posts were ten years old. Social norms change quickly, and this is one argument in favor of ephemerality.
  5. On that same note, it seems that the white supremacy movement has really embraced the internet over the last couple of years in some sick symbiosis with the POTUS. At the same time, it's striking that the result of someone's pathetic search for anti-white sentiment yielded such a lackluster example.
  6. Despite a general willingness for my views to be challenged, I don't have energy or desire to engage with this mob. I made no attempts to respond to any of my attackers. They appear to be victims of confirmation bias, stupid and/or malicious, and I have little faith that they will listen.
  7. There are some really nasty people on the internet. If triggered, they will sherlock your religion, your employer, your family, and try to hit you where it hurts the most.

Lynchings aside, I've been trying to use twitter less in favor of consuming and producing longer form content, like books, blogs, and conversations. Given that my account is currently being inundated with anti-semitic spam, I have very little incentive to continue using the service. One thing that has been keeping me on the platform is the potential reach I can get through 6K followers. I should remember that in the grand scheme of things, this is a small number, 5 orders of magnitude less than the lovely POTUS. I shouldn't grow attached.

And so, just in time for my tenth twitter anniversary, it's time for me to make some changes. At the very least, I'll be taking a long break.