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Twitter Trolls and the Refusal to Be Silenced

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On August 4, 2013, some Twitter users boycotted the service in what was known as the #TwitterSilence Campaign. The boycott was in response to rape and bomb threats directed at feminist users. Such threats included, "a bomb has been placed outside your home," sent to historian Mary Beard. Caroline Criado-Perez, a campaigner who was successful with getting Jane Austen on the British bank note, received tweets like "kill yourself before I do." They've also received rape threats, which because of their explicit nature, I refuse to repeat here.

Twitter has been a space to share information but it has also been a space where civility can be thrown out the window, free speech is hailed and abused and where the silencing of individuals, particularly women and minorities, has become commonplace.

In 140 characters or less, trolls use Twitter like the Westboro Baptist Church uses funeral picket lines: to hail insults against others. Actor Jamie Fox was called a "stupid Ni**a" on Twitter for a wearing a Trayvon Martin Shirt at an award show. Latino American Singer Mark Anthony was called a "sp*c" on Twitter after singing God Bless America at the 2013 MLB All-Star Game. A Female Asheville, North Carolina legislator recently was targeted by a fake GOP Tweeter account calling her "an argument for eugenics." In addition, everyday people who use Twitter to express their concerns about political oppression and social ills are also targets of these threats and insults.

Twitter UK has responded by making the report abuse process easier by allowing users to report abuses through a one-click process. Twitter has been quoted as saying that they want people to feel safe and that they do not tolerate abuse. For some, this is an important step in the service fulfilling its ethical obligation.

But what is the moral and political obligation of those who receive these threats? Should they take them seriously and retreat, or should they remain defiant? These are the questions that came up in response to this past weekend's #TwitterSilence Campaign.

Some believed that the political and moral thing to do was to boycott the service. Author Caitlin Moran wrote on her blog:

I'm pro the mooted 24-hour walk-out on 4th of August, because not only is it a symbolic act of solidarity... but because it will also focus minds at Twitter to come up with their own solution to the abuses of their private company. You know -- the popularity of social networking sites waxes and wanes with ferocious rapidity. Twitter might currently be the hot thing -- but it only takes a couple of bad months for it to become the new Friends Reunited, the new MySpace, the new Bebo.

For Moran, the boycott would be an act of solidarity for those who have been abused on Twitter, a way to challenge Twitter to change its policies and for Twitter to see the value of its large percentage of users: women.

However, others saw it another way. British Journalist Damian Thompson called it an "attention-seeking stunt" and went on to suggest, "What's happened instead is that the temporary disappearance of a certain breed of feminist and right-on blokes has reduced the volume of preachy, shouty messages on Twitter."

Historian Mary Beard, who has received death threats, joined the boycott. However, Caroline Criado-Perez felt a different moral and political obligation. Although she respected others' decision to boycott, she refused to participate. Her reason was because she refused to be silenced.

The Counter-Revolution of Silencing

When we think of the actions of trolls, the main objective of their Internet harassment is not merely to annoy, but to silence users. Silencing is a technique used to shut people up from talking about and taking a stand against oppression. As blogger Kinsey Hope argues, it can include trolling, offensive jokes, slurs, threats and dismissal of emotions. For Hope, the purpose is to disable and dismiss voices.

As a writer who uses social media, I too have been the victim of trolls. I know how with each read of insulting comments, I am tempted to be silent. However, I realize that is their aim and giving in will be doing exactly what the trolls want me to do: remain silent. So, it's the act of continuing to speak, in spite of the insulting and threatening reactions, that makes my speech act more revolutionary.

Silencing is nothing new. People have tried to silence multiple voices throughout history. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. received constant death threats in addition to threats of public exposure of his personal sexual acts if he did not kill himself. The act of dismissing women's anger as hysteria has long been a form of silencing. Feminists have been silenced by being long regarded as "man-haters.' The overall purpose of these techniques is to cause the individual to shut up. And with the Internet, silencing has gotten quick, direct, loud, ingenious, bolder and more anonymous.

Standing Up to Trolls

However, I believe boycotting in ways that keep our voices silent is counterproductive. I believe continuing to speak despite the hate one may receive via the Internet does several things.

Firstly, the refusal to retreat from Twitter for 24 hours, delete one's account all together or to stop speaking out about injustice online is saying that one refuses to be silenced by the insults of others. It's a powerful stance against intimidation. It's to be defiant despite others' willingness to keep you quiet.

Secondly, refusing to be silenced is an acknowledgement that safety should be taken seriously, but it does not neglect the fact that one's truth should be told and injustice must be fought at all cost. As poet and activist Audre Lorde suggests, "your silence will not protect you." The alternative of sitting in "safe corners mute as bottles" would still make us afraid. She notes, "We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language and definition." Although social media threats can make us afraid and insults can make us offended, being silenced will not make things better. Oppression will still exist. Now more than ever is the time to reclaim our need for language, particularly anti-oppressive language that can be shared across the world with the click of a button.

Thirdly, the refusal to be silenced also shows that one's words against oppression are more powerful than the words of trolls. If the online weapons of trolls are to be rendered powerless, we must allow our words to do the talking, the challenging, the revealing and the changing. We must do this instead of allowing insults and harassment to have the power to make our powerful voices mute. The horrific truths of oppression and injustice must be expressed. If not by us, then by who?

Each time I get online to share information and to join the fight against injustice, I remind myself of the old civil rights hymn that is as powerful now as it was in the 1960's:

Don't you let nobody turn you 'round/ Turn you 'round/turn you 'round/ Well don't you let nobody turn you 'round/ You got to keep on walkin', keep on talkin'

Our words have power. It is up to us who we allow to have the last word. Trolls or Truth? For me, I choose the latter.