Coffee with Trolls

Header: The Interwebs

So, I logged onto Twitter yesterday morning while drinking my morning coffee and saw the name of an author trending. He was being brigaded for something he’d said a few weeks prior (arguing against book piracy) and now there were death threats in the mix.

Sigh…

I went down the line of ugliness for a while, block-block-blocking those ugly accounts, reporting the threats, hoping such a preventative move might spare me the trouble later. As I did so, I remembered that I’d done the exact same thing the last time this author was attacked. But the number of brigadiers hadn’t diminished since then. Were these bot accounts? I wasn’t sure.

This was my second troll encounter of the week. Earlier, while checking out local tweets, I found a deep pit of conspiracy theories and calls for violence associated with the President’s threat to send the military to my city.

Let me tell ya, reading thousands of tweets claiming that you’re personally in a war zone and that should be bombed by your own government is a surreal experience. Russia held a similar disinformation campaign aimed at Ukraine some years back and now something similar was happening in my town.

After a while I felt like I might be losing my mind, so I walked up to the protest zone. I found no war, but I did find pretty murals, an impromptu food bank and medic tent, and a bunch of protesters picnicking with locals. An Orthodox Jewish family was strolling along the park with their little girl. A Drag performer in a mask was chatting up a couple twenty-something women on the sidewalk. Music was playing. This was Seattle’s characteristic diversity and laid back vibe, on display for all to see.

Sure, the slant of the current Seattle protest leans socialist, and I am decidedly not socialist, but there’s no problem with their peaceful protest.

After a morning reading disinformation, I needed to see reality with my own eyes.

Cal Anderson Park: A flat grassy play field with a dozen pedestrians and a row of open-sided tents in the distance.
Seattle’s “war zone.”

We’re fine here. Our chaotic social unrest ended as soon as the cops stopped shooting and gassing protesters. And the big scary car fires from that first night of protest? The ones that freaked me out? It seems they were all set, incredibly, by one woman from Tacoma, who has been arrested and charged.

And if we’re fine, why is Twitter talking about us like we’re a war zone? Why is right wing media feeding those lies? Where is this rage-driven fervor coming from?

I went down the line of the Seattle tweets yesterday, block-block-blocking the trolls, trying to get a bead on which tweets actually came from Seattleites. It was very hard, and reading all that hate, even to block it, was like injecting poison into my eyeballs. Ultimately, it was a waste of my time.

Here’s what I learned this week: There’s seemingly no bottom to these vile threads. Block two hundred awful voices, refresh, and another hundred trolls will be waiting. You could do this all day long and never make a dent. You could make it your day job. The best solution to Twitter’s troll problem seems to be to tweet within your own vetted circle and avoid “touching the poop” of trends and drama, but the sheer numbers and viciousness of these troll armies make that difficult. Especially when they’re using your hometown as a keyword.

The trolls of Twitter aren’t merely expressing themselves. They’re trying to drag everyone into a fight. They want us angry and hateful. They know toxic speech fans the flames of violence, at first in our hearts, and later, in the world. At least, this is what I perceive, having watched the dynamic at play. Few of these accounts seem to represent real people, and those that do are usually fame whores of the shock-jock lineage, begging for attention by being contrarian and cruel.

Today I’m asking myself: Which of the following scenarios are more likely to be true?

  1. There’s a bottomless pit of hateful people in America who spend their days spreading lies and rage on Twitter, and they all focus on the same hashtag/person for a day or two and pile on because this is what they’ve chosen to do with their lives.

  2. Organized groups are using inflammatory Twitter accounts in massive numbers to create a false reality, which we react to fearfully, eroding our empathy and ability to see the world through a rational lens.

It seems likely the second scenario is true. And as much as I give Twitter props for moving (far too slowly) in the correct direction with their policies, this disinformation-toxicity problem is severe. And I guess I’ve lost faith in their ability to fix it.

I keep thinking back to what Lindy West wrote about Twitter a few years ago:

Being on Twitter felt like being in a nonconsensual BDSM relationship with the apocalypse. So, I left.

To be clear, it’s not brave to quit Twitter, or righteous (I’m still on Facebook, which is just a differently shaped moral stockyard), or noteworthy. Quitting Twitter is just a thing that you can do. I mention it only because there was a time when I didn’t think it was a thing that I could do, and then I did it, and now my life is better.

I’ve defended Twitter for a long time. But last night I was feeling so miserable about the world, and I could trace those feelings back to Twitter. Not because Twitter is showing me what the world is (We’ve got challenges, no doubt!) but because you can only process so many hateful words, images, and lies before you feel sick, sad, and weary.

Ugh. Why do I keep visiting a place that makes me feel so bad?

I reached my breaking point with Twitter this week. So I installed blockers on my phone and computer, I uninstalled everything, and honestly, I don’t know if I’ll be coming back. Just to be safe, I may have P change my password for me. When it comes to Twitter, my FOMO runs deep. It’s terrible for me, yet I still find it irresistible. Today’s post is a fresh iteration of thoughts I’ve had many times before. I feel like I’m caught in a loop of indecision.

Deep down in my bones, I know I shouldn’t go back.

For now, my blog posts will still syndicate to Twitter (no harm in syndicating a feed where folks like to find it) but I won’t be logged in to read replies. Tweeps: You can always reach me via a blog comment or email.

And I’m feeling pretty good today. It’s like I’ve left something heavy and unpleasant behind.

So to put this topic behind me, let me say what a pleasure it is to be drinking my coffee with you today, my blog buddies. I hope your Saturday is grand. After my morning shower, I think I’ll lace up my tennis shoes and go for a walk by the water.