Tuesday, May 21

Time for NZ Twitter to grow a spine and stand up to the bullies

Human conflict has changed in nature a great deal over the last century or so. Men in our neighbourhood no longer routinely pick up arms to raid a neighbouring suburb, nor is retribution the domain of family rather than the state. But even without the same immediacy of local conflict and the threat of collective violence, we still construct groups and draw lines to delineate ‘us’ from ‘them’.

We often do this in healthy ways (mostly) when we support sports teams. We invest our loyalty and gather with others who share it. We organise politically and for specific common causes. When we share values, goals, beliefs, or a common enemy we naturally collectivise and create internalised loyalty or externalised hostility.

The rapid polarisation of politics in the West and the proliferation of an aggressive activist culture that buys into the Machiavellian tenet of ‘the end justifies the means’, has led to a new toxic externalised hostility that seeks to destroy reputations and lives. In this context, groups gather – usually at least initially online – not so much to promote their cause, but to punish those who question or challenge it.

These groups are puritanical, ruthless, and appeal to the power of the state and corporations. Their causes are often valid and reasonable on the surface. They advocate for people they deem vulnerable or victimised. However, at some point the cause seems to become secondary to the process of hunting out dissidents and destroying them. 

The natural home for these types of social groupings is social media and the perfect causes are the identity politics that fuel the culture wars.

In New Zealand, a tiny number of people use the social media platform Twitter, but it is on this particular online hellscape that a lot of the moral policing and ostracising – particularly that which is reported on by the media – originates.

Despite the small number of local tweeters, Twitter is used by many of the political, media, and cultural-elite classes. Those who make our laws, govern our country, staff our public service, make up our academia, and provide us our news all hang out together on the microblogging site which makes establishing context difficult and issuing decrees easy.

Over the decade and a bit that Twitter has existed, cliques have formed and the methods by which they ensure political and cultural compliance have become more sophisticated and brutal. They are empowered by the influence they have been able to establish over fearful corporations and politicians and supportive media. This power is disproportionate and toxic. 

There is a particular cluster of people on New Zealand Twitter whose behaviour can be compared to that of sharks with blood in the water or vultures over a carcass. They are bloodthirsty and self-righteous. That their methods have destroyed reputations and had profound impacts on lives is a source of pride for them. 

They attach themselves to left-wing politics and are predominantly university-educated, relatively affluent, high-users of social media, and work in and around the public service. Apart from public servants they are comedians, media personalities, and a lot of academics. They have appointed themselves the prefects of New Zealand Twitter. The hall monitors. The moral police.

Once alerted to a supposed thought transgression, they mob the unfortunate soul who stepped out of line. They attack directly in hyperbolic condemnations and do not wait for explanations or context. They quote-tweet drawing attention to the person who is to be tarred and feathered. The person then becomes the topic du jour and they tweet each other about how awful the person is so much that they often become a trending topic.

I sometimes open the Twitter app to find I have been trending all day without even being aware of it. 

Richie Hardcore speaking to crowd about domestic violence

This week the target of the high priests and priestesses of New Zealand Twitter was a man called Richie Hardcore. He was invited to speak on an online panel for International Women’s Day by UN Women Aotearoa as he dedicates a lot of his time and energy to ending sexual violence and violence against women. He speaks at events to boys and young men about consent. He works with charities. He teaches muay thai kicking boxing and self-defence to women.

Clearly if you’re going to have a man on your women’s day panel (which is a whole other conversation), he is a pretty decent choice. But, Richie Hardcore at some point fell afoul of the Twitter tyrants and when they got a whiff of his UN Women Aotearoa invite they called in the troops and released the heat-seeking missiles. 

You see, Richie Hardcore expressed once or twice that it would be unsafe and unfair for transwomen (males who identify as women) to compete against women in kickboxing matches. In the real world, this opinion is self-evident. Polling shows New Zealanders overwhelmingly support this assertion – only 16% of Kiwis polled supported transwomen being allowed to compete in women’s sport. That’s an 11% reduction from this time last year. On Twitter, however, this statement is one of transphobia, bigotry, and hate. It is enough to see Richie lumped in with terrible ‘TERFs’ like me. 

For this crime, a mob of adults with nothing better to do with their time than write snarky and nasty tweets about a man they don’t know, proceeded to publicly tear apart Richie’s character and reputation. They pelted UN Women Aotearoa with organised and aggressive condemnation for platforming Richie and succeeded in bullying them into making a public apology for associating with him.

Of course, this all played out on Twitter and it wasn’t long before the matter was being reported on in the mainstream media. The reporting naturally aligned sympathetically with the braying mob. Never mind that the audience for this event was pretty tiny and that no one would have even heard of it had the self-righteous folks of Thorndon and Karori not sought to mobilise.

Putting people in the online equivalent of the town stocks and pelting them with rotten fruit is cruel and utterly unwarranted. This kind of public pile on can and does do irreparable damage to a person’s life. Don’t underestimate how much it can hurt to see lies and nasty things tweeted about you en masse by people you don’t know. Add in mainstream media repeating those horrible things and it can get very overwhelming.

The people who went after Richie have been obsessively doing the same to me for about a decade now. I’m much better at ignoring their bullying these days, but years back they nearly succeeded in having my blood on their hands. They must be stopped. No matter how much they think Richie or I or anyone else are completely wrong about something, nothing justifies their rabid behaviour. Their thirst to punish and publicly shame is the issue, not that they disagree or condemn the subject of their disgust.

I’m choosing not to name any of the repeat offenders because I don’t want to instigate my own pile on, but those who use Twitter likely know who they are.

There are many people who observe this behaviour year after year and say nothing. Perhaps they agree that people who fall short of the expectations of the bullies of NZ Twitter should be punished publicly. I doubt this though as every time I am their chosen target my DMs fill up with kind messages of support and horror at the actions of the cancel clique. I suspect, instead, there is a healthy dose of the Bystander Effect at play as well as a desire to remain off the radar of the clique.

The time for hiding must come to an end, however. Those who are principled and willing to see the humanity in those they disagree with need to consider making it clear that you do not support the pile ons and bullying conducted by portions of the community.

I suspect they too have cringed at the nastiness and questioned quietly the necessity of such aggressive tactics by the bullies. I refuse to believe that this behaviour has widespread support. 

Destroying reputations and tearing people apart in feeding frenzies is not justifiable, is not activism or advocacy, and it does absolutely nothing to advance any cause. It is a gratuitous power and control game.

It is time that leaders and those with influence make it clear this is toxic and unhelpful behaviour and distance themselves from the bullies, showing that we can disagree politically without cruel and disproportionate retaliation.

If no one supports their attempts to ruin lives, no corporations bow to their thug’s veto, and no media validates their behaviour, they will be forced to reflect on the wisdom of their actions. 

I fear if we don’t snuff out this vile behaviour it could eventually have tragic consequences.