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Defending against abuse, violence, and viewpoints of hatred

(I’m still working through this. There are good arguments on both sides.)

Tools and social norms shape the conversations and interactions people have online and on different platforms. But those inclined towards abusive behavior are less likely to either follow the rules of social norms or to allow themselves to be limited by tools; those motivated towards abuse will find ways to do harm. By limiting tools that can be used for good in hopes of quelling harmful behavior, is the damper put on positive uses greater than the reduction of harmful behavior? How much does depriving fascists of tools for virality also impact our ability to fight fascism?

I imagine there is a balance specific to every tool and platform that should be evaluated — and an argument towards greater or lesser protection depending on the community’s values.

The QT — functionality to natively quote another’s post in a new thread — is currently under debate in the Twitter to Mastodon exodus. It’s interesting to see this case study in how differently people use the internet.

For me, adding context or commentary is nearly universally helpful when sharing information. I add my own notes to almost everything I save here besides basic bookmarks. In my experience on Twitter, RTs (re-sharing without comment), which are allowed) are often obnoxious because they are effortless — QTing to add context or commentary requires more effort. On Twitter, I usually wouldn’t follow people whose feed was filled with RTs instead of QTs, which I read as symptomatic of an uncritical viewpoint or someone with nothing of their own to say. (That was probably too harsh of me, because it can be a kindness to boost attention to some things or people.)

From a discussion on, Mike Hall says:

My “keep Twitter useful for me” recipe included a timeline filter in Tweetbot that weeded out RTs. I initially had QTs in the filter, too, but found they were actually useful most of the time. RTs felt like the real poison to me, less from a “this is harmful to one specific person” vantage and more from a “this is just a delivery vehicle for thought-terminating clichés, most extreme examples, and safest way to say ‘yeah, that'” point of view.

So at least n= more than one in my “RTs are worse than QTs” viewpoint 😂

But. I haven’t been attacked online. Maybe taking away as many opportunities for abuse is worthwhile, even if abusers will find another avenue for attack, and it sacrifices a tool that can be used for good.

Annalee Newitz describes the “nonconsensual virality” that removes quotes from context and attacks character:

Let me put a phrase into your mind: nonconsensual virality. It’s why quote-posts on Twitter led to harassment. People’s words stolen, taken out of context, used purely to incite a mob of griefers. The answer is to give #Mastodon users control over whether someone else can quote-post them, with a simple “quote or not” setting that can be set before or after the post goes up. We should be allowed to stop people from taking our posts viral without our consent.

Here’s where I struggle, because personally I have derived a lot of value from others using QTs as a teaching tool, and I also think there is value in having means to critique, but in other areas my stance has been to default to protection.

On a Mastodon thread, Katherine Alejandra Cross makes the point that the harm may exceed the good regardless of the numbers:

There is every possibility that if we were to count up every QT and were able to objectively label them as harassment or neutral or positive in tone, we might find harassing QTs outnumbered. But then we get into quality over quantity.

What if the abusive QTs just matter more? What if they loom larger in the public consciousness? What if they generate more engagement? What if that engagement is itself largely abusive? (And this is the heart of the problem, by the way.)

The other related stance I was discussing with a friend is the “punch Nazis” thing. I’m hardline ‘a tolerant society requires intolerance of the intolerant’ BUT also am not convinced personal violence is the answer here. What does it accomplish besides personal satisfaction?

Is the idea that fascists are so insecure they will be so embarrassed by being punched/ a public repudiation of their views that they will slink away into silence? …but isn’t that how we got here, for decades making it uncouth to express racist views in public, but they still lived on behind closed doors? Does driving the fascists into cloistered circles protect us from them?

I am also scared of this approach because 1) fascists tend to be conservative and pro-gun and all too willing to kill, and 2) police and people in power are often drawn to the continued power and status quo of fascism, and it’s easier for them to apply violence to the marginalized, especially if they have the excuse of “they started it!”, and 3) might =/= right.

If we normalize violence as a form of critique in our society, will that make it easier for protofascists to increase their use of violence without public pushback? Or does it not make a difference what we do because fascists are violent fuckers inherently, and they will always find an excuse for violence, so may as well get a few shots in?

This tension is part of what I love about Batman: he’s positioned in his stories as the hero, yet vigilantism is Not Good. He has “his line” that he will not kill, but seems ok with everything up to it. The horror of the self-ordained savior is why we love Watchmen. The “actually society’s problems can’t all be solved by punching and to what extent does relying on my physical power condone and reinforce our government’s reliance on violence” is what could be interesting about Superman. Because the mob rule of social media is vigilantism — sometimes just, and sometimes not.

The nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights movement turned the oppressors’ use of violence against them, enduring harm when it could be televised and publicized to turn public opinion.

Defending against fascists is America’s biggest problem right now, so it’s valuable to interrogate the methods we use. How do we balance the use of these tools to regulate power and abuse against the certainty those same tactics will be turned back against us?

I suspect the tools are less important than the cultural context of moral righteousness for behavior that is legal but not socially acceptable. Judging others reinforces our view of ourselves as good. Social media is The Lottery, with that day’s Main Character the victim; when we participate in mob justice, we accept it as a tool in our collective arsenal.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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