The real bullies who spread hatred and division aren't on Twitter – they're in plain sight

Nyadol Nyuon
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

There is no doubt that Twitter can be a hostile, even vicious, place.

There is also little doubt that the viciousness on Twitter contributes to the “coarsening of political dialogue” and that in turn suffocates “civilised debate”. As stated by Amnesty International, the abuse experienced on Twitter, especially by women, affects women’s right to “express themselves equally, freely and without fear”.

Personally, the racist and sexist abuse is all too common. I often set aside time to deal with toxic abuse after every television appearance or published article. And in this, I am not alone.

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The fact that women are one of the primary targets of online abuse shows that Twitter just reflects, if not in fact magnifies, our social ills. Interestingly, the targeting of women is “across the political spectrum”, despite allegations of Twitter being a “left-leaning echo chamber”.

Of all the victims of Twitter’s online abuse black women are disproportionately targeted.

A study by Amnesty International found that black women were “84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets”.

Simply said, for women of colour there is no “bubble”, no “echo chamber”, online or in the real world, which can protect us. We can either choose to remain in the fight or be silenced, and we have long heeded the warning that our silence will not protect us either.

The fact that women are one of the primary targets of online abuse shows that Twitter just reflects, if not in fact magnifies, our social ills

So the real choice, if there is one, is between so-called uncivilised debate or no debate.

The choices available are in the context that first, the traditional media in Australia does not offer much room for debate as it remains largely unrepresentative of the country’s multicultural diversity. Second, it is not established that the traditional media provides for a more civil debate than Twitter.

To elaborate the first point, the lack of diversity in the traditional media means the points of view of people of colour (for lack of a better word) remain unheard. There are very few platforms in the traditional media in Australia where a person of colour performs a central role, such as leading the conversation, even on matters that disproportionally affect those communities.

On the second point, it is possible that Twitter is no worse than traditional media. Implicit in ongoing debate about the incivility of social media is the assumption that traditional media does a better job of fostering civilised debate. There are reasons which makes it hard to readily accept that conclusion.

It was not Twitter where more than 200,000 words were published to “socially punish” a young Muslim woman until she left the country. It wasn’t on Twitter where a commentator joked of wanting to run her over. It was not on Twitter where the war on African communities was unleashed. It was not on Twitter where a cartoon depicting one of the greatest athletes on Earth was drawn in a way which was described by some as “Jim-Crow racist” and looking like something out of a “1870s racist southern newspaper”. These are minor issues compared with some of the campaigns conducted in traditional media that have changed the trajectory of the country.

One campaign was exposed in Robert Manne’s essay In Denial: The Stolen Generations and The Right. It was a campaign conducted by “the editor of Quadrant, PP McGuinness, and a dozen or so sympathetic journalists” to delegitimise the findings concerning the “stolen generations”. There is little doubt that campaign was successful in tugging a country back from the brink of dealing, and perhaps healing, a national wound. It derailed action and plunged the country back into inaction. It silenced some voices. It was not on Twitter.

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These examples challenge the idea that the real bullies who are spreading hatred and division are on Twitter. Possibly, it still is the traditional media where debate is most meaningfully shut down. On Twitter you can block or mute someone. There is no blocking or muting those in powerful positions in the traditional media. Not only can’t you block or mute them, they remain paid and are given an air of legitimacy which is not afforded to anonymous internet trolls.

Ironically instead of stifling debate, Twitter can be one of the few mediums to allow a meaningful public response. During the African gangs reporting, it was Sudanese Australians using the hashtag #Africangangs that began to challenge the narrative. The #MeToo movement started on Twitter and ended in the jail sentence of one of the most power people in the movie world. From the small to the great, Twitter can be the only equaliser.

All this is not to stay Twitter is not problematic. It can be. It is also a powerful tool for the “preferably unheard”. Without it, they would largely remain unheard, unseen and risk being totally caged in the image of another person’s views or stereotypes.