Artillery Row

When is a bot not a bot?

Answer: when it’s a feminist

The New Statesman published an article yesterday which asserted that a recent example of successful feminist activism was probably created by bots and that no one really likes feminists who are critical of gender. We are unpopular; not as hot as we think we are. In fact, who the hell do we think we are? Reading this article, you may be forgiven for thinking that we number just half a dozen slightly miffed women.

Sarah Manavis based these assertions — that gender critical feminists lack support — on an article by Logically AI which appeared on 24 January. This article suggested that the well-supported feminist hashtag #KeepPrisonsSingleSex was actually mostly supported by Twitter “bots” (automated Twitter accounts controlled by bot software).

It is concerning that both of these questionable articles dismiss the vast range of feminist activism that focusses on this very issue. It is patronising and infantilising to suggest that women aren’t capable of swift and effective political organisation. The suggestion that those who oppose the assault on women’s rights by trans rights activists are few is simply not true.

In January 2020 almost 1000 women gathered in London for WPUK2020, the biggest women’s rights conference in the UK for decades. This was, of course, underreported. Ironically, I ran a workshop at this event with Ali Ceesay about how to advise other women on feminist organisation. Women have become louder in their demands, and support has continued to grow. With the hashtag #KeepPrisonsSingleSex trending on multiple occasions, clearly something was working.

I feature in the artwork by Logically AI because I used the hashtag extensively, as many feminist women did, both on 9 January and 10 January, before the debate in the House of Lords on the proposed amendment 97ZA by Lord Blencathra. I tweeted a thread about the subject using the hashtag which had an extensive reach. As a result, the New Statesman approached me on the morning of 10 January to write an article on the subject.

It is bizarre that a respected publication was apparently aware enough of this issue to commission one of us to write about it, and yet now supports the idea that we are not real.

Bots don’t generally have a sense of humour, but feminists do

As Logically AI acknowledges, tracking “bots” is “as much an art as it is a science”. Is it admitting that its claims about gender critical feminists may not be wholly accurate? In March 2021 Florian Gallwitz and Michael Krell co-authored a research paper called “The Rise and Fall Of ‘Social Bot’ research”, which was critical of the kind of assertions made by Logically AI in its article. Gallwitz and Krell’s research notes that they “closely and systematically inspected hundreds of accounts that had been counted or even presented as ‘social bots’ in peer-reviewed studies. We were unable to find a single ‘social bot’. Instead, we found mostly accounts undoubtedly operated by human users”. 

It has been suggested that while some “bots” may have been attracted to feminist activism, their presence does not negate or explain it.

Tonight at 17.21pm I asked feminist women to reply to my tweet if they were in support of #KeepPrisonsSIngleSex at the time of the trending hashtag, and to confirm that they were not a “bot”. Some of the very funny replies do just this. One hour later, 319 users had confirmed to the New Statesman that they were not bots. They used the hashtag #KeepPrisonsSingleSex. Bots don’t generally have a sense of humour, but feminists do.

Feminist women could probably fill that London 2020 venue five times over now. You can dismiss us, deny we exist, discredit our work and smear us. But we are real, angry, and we’re not going anywhere. When Lord Blencathra brings back another amendment to the chamber as he surely must, #KeepPrisonsSingleSex will trend again. And it will be real women who put it there.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover