How to survive Twitter

Shame, anonymity and never saying sorry


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When people ask about the repercussions of publicly refusing to believe in gender identity, the first thing they usually raise is the nastiness of social media. How, they wonder, do the abuse, pile-ons and occasional death threats feel? I flippantly answer that I’m used to them, and pay them no heed. But a more truthful answer would be that they take a toll — just not in the way most people expect.

It is simply impossible to debase yourself enough to get the “do better” crowd to leave you alone

It is of course unpleasant to be called a fascist or Nazi for thinking that men cannot be women. But the name-calling doesn’t lead to soul-searching: when I think very poorly of someone, I don’t care what they think of me. Rather, I feel deeply depressed at how many people are willing to swallow a big lie, or at least to go along with it to get along. 

Whether or not Churchill actually said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”, I sometimes think all it takes to destroy your faith in humanity is to read the replies and quote-tweets on Twitter.

And so in order not to become too jaded, I turn off all the notifications Twitter allows me to. I mute liberally, gloat at the thought of bile being spewed pointlessly into the void, and rely on friends to keep an eye out for libel or credible death threats. 

I only block in response to nasty DMs and persistent trolling, and certainly never reply to either. The worst online menaces treat being blocked as a badge of honour, sharing screen captures of block notices and crowing that they have got under your skin. I prefer not to give them the satisfaction.

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This approach makes me a less appealing target. It also reduces online noise, and the likelihood that I misinterpret online dynamics by reference to real-life ones. Before the internet, having hundreds of people simultaneously shouting at or insulting you meant you were about to be lynched. Being mobbed online can feel unnervingly similar. 

In truth, pile-ons are rarely coordinated. Judging by how much participants make the same few points, they rarely even read each other’s posts. Even so the experience triggers a fight-or-flight response — and the shame that comes from feeling ostracised. In any pre-modern community, social death could often lead to the literal kind.

Part of Donald Trump’s appeal was that he was shameless. I wish I could recommend we all try to copy him in our online personae — but without shame, people are monstrous. One of the under-acknowledged downsides of the internet is that it has created more such monsters.

I now try to stay well away from anything even faintly resembling an online mobbing

Another is the death of the apology. In person, saying sorry is an important step towards reconciliation and character growth; online it is a terrible idea no matter how much you have messed up. An apology is the online equivalent of blood in the water, calling to the sharks and triggering a feeding frenzy. 

It is simply impossible to debase yourself enough to get the “do better” crowd to leave you alone. These are the people who live for purity spirals — vicious cycles of moral outbidding in the impossible quest to make others live up to an extremist ethical code. Participants in this sort of one-upmanship can never signal their own virtue too visibly, and will never tire of elevating their own status by trying to tear other people down.

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Naturally, it is harder to brush off criticism when it comes from people you regard as part of your intellectual tribe. And they often express their criticism far more harshly online than they would in person. That is in part because the internet creates “parasocial” relationships — one-sided ones between people who broadcast content and those who consume it. 

Until recently, the broadcasting party was almost always a celebrity; now, it may be anyone with a Twitter account. To the consumer, the interaction may create the illusion of friendship, especially in video or audio form. But the producer does not share the illusion. Writing a book feels like putting a message in a bottle and casting it to the waves; someone listening to the audio edition on earbuds while walking their dog or weeding their garden can feel like you and they are having an intimate conversation. The same is true of listening to long-form podcasts, which can feel like chewing the fat late into the night with friends.

A person who has listened to hours of you discussing something that deeply interests them, only then to hear you say something with which they disagree, may feel it like a gut punch. But you aren’t actually their friend, and they can’t sit you down with you to hash it out. 

At an emotional level they may respond as if they have been stabbed in the back by a bosom buddy — but what they say (on Twitter, of course) can be reminiscent of the sort of trashing only celebrities used to experience: invented gossip and personal insults designed to wound. Again, all I can advise is muting the worst offenders, stepping away from your screens and remembering that your critics really don’t know you, no matter how much they think they do.

I now try to stay well away from anything even faintly resembling an online mobbing. I don’t like taking part in something so reminiscent of Orwell’s “two minutes of hate”, and I don’t like the little thrill of righteousness it makes me feel.

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Sometimes, people think social media could be improved by banning anonymous accounts. I disagree, in part because some excellent accounts are anonymous for good reason. I know government lawyers and women with abusive exes who could never tweet under their own names, and who are informative and entertaining.

Moreover, some of the worst social-media trolling is done openly and proudly by people using their own names. Most nastiness on social media has a very straightforward purpose: to get something the perpetrator wants. Only when the rewards stop will nastiness become less common.

Who would have possibly thought it was a good idea to respond to the tinpot Twitter totalitarians?

In late June the human-rights organisation I work for, Sex Matters, held a board meeting at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. We made the time to visit the Suffragette exhibition, which includes the Pankhursts’ “First in the Fight” banner, and to pose in green, white and purple sashes and bonnets. 

When we got home we tweeted the pictures, tagging the museum and thanking it for a lovely day. What followed wasn’t even really a pile-on, more a whingefest. Dylan Lewis-Creser, a they/them man-baby who co-chairs the national “LGBTIQA+ Greens”, called us “transphobic” and told the museum its decision to rent a room to us was “really disappointing”. 

Instead of ignoring him and other accounts tweeting similar petulant nonsense, the museum apologised abjectly. It begged to be given time to rebuild the trust of the “wider LGBTQI+ community and all people who face marginalisation” and promised to “learn from” its terrible error in accommodating an organisation that does not “share its values”. If you ask me, an organisation that doesn’t share Sex Matters’s values — namely that the binary and immutable nature of biological sex matters for human rights, especially women’s — should get the Suffragettes’ name out of its mouth.

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The next day that statement was deleted “pending legal advice”. Who would have possibly thought it was a good idea to respond to the tinpot Twitter totalitarians by promising to commit unlawful belief discrimination in future? A few days later Sex Matters executive director, Maya Forstater, was awarded six-figure compensation by an employment tribunal after being subjected to this sort of discrimination by the Centre for Global Development think tank, where she worked.

I hope that legal wins by campaigners for sex-based rights will stiffen the spines of organisations targeted by overgrown children throwing strops in the expectation of getting what they want. The best way to make Twitter less toxic is to make it clear that online tantrums no longer work. 

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