Twitter, more speech, and mobs

Ask the average free speech advocate for the solution to offensive speech, and they’ll likely tell you: more speech. And they’re right. (Though, I think ignoring speech can sometimes be the right call but I don’t expect others to feel the same.) However, the suggestion for “more speech” doesn’t always seem to apply on social media, where “more speech” and “mobs” seem to overlap quite frequently. Our tendency to lump together all responses to speech into one bucket often has the result of conflating the people trying to earnestly criticize with those trying to threaten or harass. 

Many people probably agree that thousands of tweets demanding the firing of a non-public figure would count as “mobbing,” but what about a bunch of abrasive tweets that aren’t calls for punishment? Sure, 50,000 angry tweets might fairly seem like mobbing. But what about 5,000? 500? 50? It’s unclear. And, frankly, I often see people who oppose vaguely-defined “mobbing” engage in such behavior — sometimes while denouncing it. 

For a while now, I’ve been trying to think more seriously about the way that I conduct myself on social media and the friction between “more speech” and “mobs.” So far, I haven’t been able to come up with a principled way to define the latter — that doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but it’s not simple. And until a more clear definition is available, it might make sense to start looking at this issue not in broad generalizations of what makes up an online mob, but through the lens of our own behavior, and whether we’re comfortable with the way we’re speaking to, and about, other people online. 

So, in that spirit, we might benefit from following some basic guidelines that would mitigate some of the worst outcomes and asking ourselves how we use social media before publicly casting aspersions about how others do. (A couple of caveats: 1) These rules are best applied to situations not involving a politician or other major public figure. 2) I’m still working this out, and might revisit it later.)

Here are some ground rules that could improve the situation:

  • Plenty of bad arguments do not need a name attached to them if the speaker is not a public figure or in a position of authority. If you see an obnoxious tweet advocating a view you’d like to pick apart, consider screencapping it and removing the account name. 

  • And on the flip side of that, if you see a tweet with the account name removed, don’t hunt down the original post — the person sharing it probably removed the name for this reason. 

  • When possible, avoid sharing videos of teenagers unless they’ve been anonymized. I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable watching adults share videos of teenagers as a means to critique their behavior. This doesn’t have to mean young people engaging in offensive speech shouldn’t experience any accountability, but accountability doesn’t have to come in the form of thousands of adult strangers tweeting their names. 

  • Reply when possible instead of quote tweeting when you’re arguing. Again, this isn’t necessarily the case if the identity of the speaker is important — sometimes it is! But discussions usually don’t need to be carried out through rounds of increasingly angry quote tweets.

  • For what it’s worth, I can’t recall many times I’ve regretted it when I’ve offered more good faith than seems deserved. But I have regretted doing the opposite. It can be hard to read tone on Twitter, and it’s too easy to assume ill will. 

  • Accept that other people’s version of how to act on Twitter may not align with yours, but that it isn’t a good reason to abandon your code of conduct. 

  • Be hesitant to accuse people of mobbing. It’s difficult to look at our own speech objectively, and in reality your online behavior generally might not be all that different from the behavior you’re condemning.

The point of this is not to say that you should just sit there and smile blandly as strangers hurl insults at you, but we sometimes have a tendency to treat everyone on Twitter as if they’re no different from the worst people on it. So this isn’t a definitive list of Rules To Be Good Online, but it could rein in some of the less useful parts of Twitter. (On a related note, whenever people tweet about how bad Twitter is I think of that line, “you’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.”)

There are also a few questions we can ask ourselves to determine whether we could be acting differently on social media: 

  • What are my intentions with what I’m posting? Sometimes, it’s good to mock. Public figures — especially ones that would use their authority to censor critics — should be expected to tolerate a healthy dose of mockery. (I earned my Erdogan block.) But mocking isn’t always the best approach, and we should be honest with ourselves about what we’re trying to achieve. People are unlikely to read your posts with the assumption that you want to change their mind if you’re mocking them. So, it’s a good idea to ask what we intend, and what outcomes we really expect. 

  • Is my tweet to, or about, someone necessary? As I said earlier, I haven’t seen a good explanation for when a bunch of people expressing disagreement morph into a mob, and I would be hesitant to accuse someone of being part of a mob. But I do know that I’ve started to think twice about tweeting at people when I’ve already seen others express what I wanted to say. It might not be necessary to be the 100th person to tell someone they’re wrong. 

  • Is this the best way to use my account? I have 20,000 followers or so. That’s not that many compared to big accounts, but I’ve learned that it can be enough to ruin someone’s day. If there is a way to get a message across in a manner that is less likely to result in someone getting a lot of angry replies — like posting screenshots with names removed, or just referencing their viewpoint more generally — that might be the best way to do it. 

I have always hated the “twitter isn’t real life” line because I think it 1) is usually employed by people who are obsessed with Twitter and lacking self-awareness, 2) is dismissive of the real impact social media can have on people’s lives, for good and bad, and 3) seems to suggest that the way we act online has no bearing on who we are as people. It absolutely does! 

It’s fine to not have all the answers about the relationship between social media and mobs (I certainly don’t), but considering what we post, and why, doesn’t seem like a bad place to start.

The views expressed here are Sarah’s and should not be considered positions of organizations she’s affiliated with.