It all began on a bone-achingly cold night in Dunedin. I was away on business, sitting in my hotel room and watching the fall-out from the Brexit decision on Twitter. It was the 24th of June; the day that I had my first, and hopefully only, encounter with the infamous Milo Yiannopoulos.
That morning, I’d spoken at a school about feminism and cyber-bullying, and earlier that evening a Welsh colleague and I had shared a conversation about our mutual shock at the British referendum decision. Little did I know, as I sat in front of my screen that night, that all of these seemingly unrelated threads of my day would soon be woven into one, and deposited into my unsuspecting lap like a digital Molotov cocktail.
I can’t even remember what I wrote. Something about how the terrified white people who had bolstered the Brexit vote, specifically the rich and powerful ones, completely failed to grasp the fact that they are about the least threatened or marginalised group in the entire world. I was taking aim at the Nigel Farages and Boris Johnsons of the Leave campaign. The scaremongers who had cooked up a steaming pot of hatred to feed their own agendas. A steaming pot of hatred that was now spitting and splattering all over England.
In a bizarre twist of fate, somehow Yiannopoulos, pre-Twitter exile, saw my tweet, and retweeted it to his legion of underlings, captioned with a snide remark to fan the flames. I happened to scrolling through my feed the moment he pressed the button. His name flashed onto my screen, and a frisson of dread shot through me like a bullet.
My notifications exploded, though not as disastrously as you would expect. By sheer chance, I had discovered Twitter’s quality filter a few days earlier, and decided to switch it on. Still, my mentions were suddenly filled with insults, disgusting language, dreadful spelling, and a few of the tamer rape threats that had somehow found their way through the cyber sieve.
My block-and-report finger was ready, but I couldn’t keep up. No sooner would I vanquish one repellent cesspit monster than another would be reborn from his rotting remains.
I gave up. Underneath my feeling of horror, a sense of fascination was growing. Curious, I decided to turn off my quality filter. Instantly, I fell to the bottom of the deepest, murkiest submarine canyon of the Twittersphere. The space in which every shithead and his dog leaves a thick, black trail of sexist, racist and xenophobic slime in their wake. It was intriguing and viscerally revolting in equal measure.
My heart began to race, my hands quivering before my eyes with the shock of adrenalin that was now coursing through my system. If there’s one thing that people who have never been the target of a Twitter pile-on don’t understand, it’s that the sheer volume of aggression inspires a bodily response. My sympathetic nervous system had kicked into gear, engaging my fight or flight response, but the terrifying animals waiting to rip my prehistoric head off were nameless, faceless creatures thousands of miles away. My body had mobilised to fight a predator it would never see, let alone win against.
Eventually, amid unrelenting abuse, I deleted the tweets. If Yiannopoulos’ minions couldn’t see what or whom he had retweeted, I reasoned, they couldn’t locate the target of his ire. I was mostly right, and the current slowed, though I wasn’t hanging around to confirm the theory. I switched the quality filter back on, signed out of Twitter and went to bed.
It was only a few short hours of my life, but it was an experience I’m keen to never repeat. When the news broke that Yiannopoulos’ gang of man-babies was attacking the fantastic Leslie Jones, I had some inkling of an idea of the hell she was living. While my stint in Twitter’s so-called ‘alt-right’ haunted house was mercifully swift, and relatively easy to end, Jones’ was unrelenting, with no end in sight.
As a woman of colour in a film misogynists were destined to hate on [unprincipled] principle, Jones may as well have dived naked, smothered in blood, into the midst of a shark feeding frenzy. Through no fault of her own, a group of people, self-styled as members of the ‘alt-right’ – shorthand for ‘extremist conservatives who are also racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, white supremacist xenophobes’ – had decided to make Jones’ life miserable, and they damn near succeeded.
As a devastated Jones prepared to leave Twitter for good, the beautiful announcement was made that Yiannopoulos had been permanently banned from the micro-blogging platform for his part in the campaign against her. It was the happiest possible ending to the ugliest of sagas. Days later, it remains the gift that keeps giving, as the bottom-feeders continue their crying out (“WAAAAAHHHH, BLAH BLAH BLAH, FREEDOM OF SPEECH, BLAH BLAH, #FREEMILO, WAAAAAAHHH!”) for their feckless leader, much to the poetic amusement of those he abused.
What can be learnt from this disturbing tale? Much of the discussion around online misogyny and cyber safety has revolved around women and what they can do to keep themselves safe online. Directives like, “don’t feed the trolls,” are alluringly simple, but they automatically nullify a woman’s right not to be abused in the first place, and, if she decides to stand up for herself, seemingly make the abuse her fault. Like the focus on telling women to be careful not to get raped, telling women that it is their responsibility to keep themselves safe online has been largely ineffective and has propagated a victim-blaming ideology that takes the responsibility for online abuse out of the hands of the abusers and forces it upon their victims. That has to change, and with Yiannopoulos’ digital deportation, the wheels may finally have been set in motion.
What private companies like Twitter are finally realising is that it is in their best interests to keep their users safe. Women who feel unsafe will eventually reach a point where they will decide to leave the platform. And when high profile women like Leslie Jones decide to leave, they send a message to other women that perhaps we are better off without Twitter. When the women we look up to leave the platform, our experience on the network is diminished, and we begin to feel unwelcome in an environment where misogyny lurks just around the corner.
Then there’s the fact that there are more female Twitter users than male. It shouldn’t take much for a corporation to realise that allowing the abuse and alienation of their biggest group of users is a profoundly stupid business strategy. It has taken Twitter longer than one might’ve expected, but the company is finally starting to crack down on its unsavoury components, much to the relief of women around the globe.
There’s still a long way to go. The vast majority of Yiannopoulos’ 300,000 or so former followers are still out there, spewing their morally bankrupt ideologies to anyone who’ll listen in the name of “free speech”. But it is heartening to know that sometimes – at least once in a blue moon – the assholes get what’s coming to them.