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48 hours later: Now let’s confront our own hatefulness on Twitter.

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Clearly, Twitter needs to change. The licence that allowed Wiley to continue with an antisemitic rant unimpeded for hours and days only highlights the persistent reluctance of the platform to prevent its use for hate, abuse and bullying. I don’t know whether a 48 hour Twitter silence is the most effective way of protesting, but it certainly draws attention to the issue. 

I did join in with silence, albeit with a couple of slips. But even though I have some sympathy with the protest, I have to admit that some of my motivation was less solidarity, so much as a desire to avoid trouble. And therein lies the problem…

My fear is this: It will be very easy for supporters and organisers of the silent protest to go through Twitter accounts and see who was tweeting or not during the 48 hours. There is a strong possibility that those who did not join in will be seen as scabs, as apologists for antisemitism, as enemies. This may seem paranoid but at least some of the Twitter accounts that have been instrumental in the campaign are, at the very least, highly confrontational and, in some cases, have track records of aggressive and abusive behaviour. Of course, those who such anti-antisemitism accounts are combating are often even worse. 

Silence is being forced to speak. According to taste, silence and the breaking of that silence will position protagonists into enemy camps. Forgotten will be those who kept the silence out of pain and anguish, those who were silent out of trepidation, those who were silent because they don’t tweet very much, those who spoke out of nuanced objections and ambivalence, and those who spoke out of ignorance that the protest was taking place. 
In short, the 48 hour silence is likely to be both a protest against the worst aspects of Twitter, and itself a manifestation and deepening of its poison.

This is not to say that all are equally guilty. Some poisons are more endemic, more acute and more deeply-rooted. Wiley’s endless hours of extreme Jew-hatred are clearly in the most severe category and Twitter’s failures in dealing with them – and other racists – are clearly the highest priority for action. 

But the fact that the 48 hour Twitter silence has itself been enmeshed in bitter controversy, tells us that there are inescapable limits to mobilising against Twitter-hate using the tools that Twitter itself provides (or, for that matter, other social networks too). Sectarianism is so engrained on Twitter that any attempt to mobilise on behalf of one particular cause – however righteous – will inevitably create a counter-mobilisation. This would have been true even if the 48 hour silence was conducted in the name of a wider anti-racism than simply anti-antisemitism. In some sense, an even more broad-brush campaign would compound the problem further. Given that it is common for many tweeters to define themselves against everything that some others tweeters say and do, all it takes is for one of the despised ones to tweet support for a cause to set others against it. 

There is an unerring tendency for Twitter campaigns against hate to become hateful themselves, for action against bullying to become counter-bullying. Over time, those who start off as righteous fighters against the worst kinds of bigotry and abuse, often get dragged down into the muck. Twitter is a potent source of degeneration. The best of us turn into the worst of us in the blink of an eye. 

So despite all the well-known problems with ‘both-sideism’, any successful campaign against the worst aspects of Twitter would have to target not ‘others’, but ourselves

I’ll start: I am weak, I get drawn in to pointless conflicts, I can be snarky and snide, I get riled up, I find it hard to criticise people on ‘my’ side when they act badly. Of course, I do try hard. I am usually better than some at least and at my best I can cultivate nuanced conversations across ideological dividing lines. 

We need to atone, we need to acknowledge our hatefulness – which is the same as acknowledging our common human fallibility –  we need to acknowledge our weakness in the face of the addictive qualities of social media. 48 hours of collective, silent atonement could be a powerful statement, maybe even a ‘reset’ to Twitter.  

Such a collective act would, ironically, help us to identify those of us who are truly incorrigible. We need to distinguish those of us who sometimes fall into hatred and abuse from those for whom hatred and abuse are their entire online purpose. Most of us, thankfully, fall into the former category.

Yes, there are all sorts of risks of performative atonement, insincere contrition and passive aggression. Some of that can be avoided by mutually recognising the inevitability of hypocrisy and refusing to use statements of one’s own fallibility as a stick to beat others.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Twitter is so slow and so reluctant to police their platform, is that campaigns against particular tweeters themselves come across as sectarian and controversial. A collective plea from Twitter users predicated on a recognition of the imperfections of those users might be different. What would happen if we told Twitter that the platform is dragging us down? That we need help to curb our worst tendencies? That while the worst ‘haters’ need to be policed, so we too are finding it hard not to get sucked into hate ourselves? 

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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