Eira Tansey

This machine coddles fascists (or, why I’m leaving Twitter)

President Trump has engaged in utterly disturbing verbal threats of nuclear war for months, and on January 2 he escalated it to this:

Despite Twitter’s recent efforts to rein in the hellscape it has created, it still gives a pass to the President because he is noteworthy, because of loopholes created for military and government officials, and because Twitter somehow believes that enabling bellicose threats is part of “necessary discussion.”

If you really want the honest truth of why Twitter will never ban Donald Trump from its service, you don’t need to read their public relations statements. Read what they tell the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Twitter is a company that measures its success by how many active users (measured by both monthly and daily metrics, aka MAUs and DAUs) it has. Looking at their most recent SEC filing, it’s clear that the company is working on increasing daily active user activity – likely because they’ve probably hit saturation points with how many new users are using the system. SEC filings require companies to disclose risks, and Twitter states:

If we fail to grow our user base, or if user engagement or ad engagement on our platform decline, our revenue, business and operating results may be harmed.

The size of our user base and our users’ level of engagement are critical to our success. We had 330 million average MAUs in the three months ended September 30, 2017, representing approximately a 4% increase from 317 million average MAUs in the three months ended September 30, 2016 (see “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations – Note About Our MAU Adjustment” above). DAUs for the three months ended September 30, 2017 increased 14% year over year. Our financial performance has been and will continue to be significantly determined by our success in growing the number of users and increasing their overall level of engagement on our platform as well as the number of ad engagements. We anticipate that our user growth rate will continue to slow over time as the size of our user base increases. […] If people do not perceive our products and services to be useful, reliable and trustworthy, we may not be able to attract users or increase the frequency of their engagement with our platform and the ads that we display.

Twitter then goes on to state the following, something which is so brazen in its denial of the problem it has created, it’s actually kind of amazing (emphasis mine):

“[…]if we are not able to address user concerns regarding the safety and security of our products and services or if we are unable to successfully prevent abusive or other hostile behavior on our platform, the size of our user base and user engagement may decline. We rely on the sale of advertising services for the substantial majority of our revenue and a decline in the number of users, user growth rate, or user engagement, including as a result of the loss of world leaders, government officials, celebrities, athletes, journalists, sports teams, media outlets and brands who generate content on Twitter, advertisers [sic] may deter new advertisers from using our products or services or cause current advertisers to reduce their spending with us or cease doing business with us, which would harm our business and operating results.”

None of this is shocking or surprising for a company that notes the “substantial majority of our revenue is currently generated from third parties advertising on Twitter.” So when I see Twitter banning Next Door Neighbor Nazis and not banning Trump, I see Twitter trying to have it both ways: attempting to show they’re “doing something,” but also doubling-down on the fact that “world leaders and government officials” are the cash cows that keep on driving engagement. In other words, Twitter does not distinguish between any world leaders threatening nuclear annihilation and world leaders attempting to keep us from sliding into the gates of hell. They are simply content generators, like the rest of us, that lead to advertising. Global consequences be damned.

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After the 2016 presidential election, many people implored us to determine where our line was. To identify where angels fear to tread among where there be dragons. To draw a line in the sand. We were cautioned against letting the unthinkable become normalized, that doing so would be to cede the grounds of not only the American democratic process, but our basic humanity.

The problem with this framing is that it conjured up scenes of going up against the barricades, of hoping that the US would suddenly be inspired to go on a general strike when most folks had never marched around and chanted. It set up expectations that America’s citizens would run a marathon when most of us were still learning to walk for the first time.

Over the last year I feel like I’ve been plunged back into being a teenager – when my political baptism was protest against the Iraq War. My country invaded Iraq before I could vote. When I was 17, I somehow convinced my boring west-side-of-Cincinnati Episcopal church to kick in some money to help fund a bus of protesters to go to DC. I spent many dreary afternoons shouting chants on a street corner I can see from the windows of the library that I work at 14 years later.

As the war drums start beating again, there is at least one line that has become increasingly uncomfortable for me over the last several days. I can no longer use a platform serving as a propaganda outlet for normalizing and trivializing the horrors of nuclear war. This is why I’m leaving Twitter, after using it regularly for over seven years.

Twitter is clearly committed to amplifying the voice of a racist demagogue with impulse control and the unilateral authority to launch nuclear weapons, and this is in direct conflict with my opposition to war and militarism. The President clearly has many platforms he can use to spread his propaganda besides Twitter – George W. Bush certainly managed to do so well before the advent of social media. By not shutting this down, Twitter is saying is that there is no line in the sand for them; that allowing their service to become a tool of nuclear propaganda is preferable to any possible alternative.

Nuclear proliferation is often discussed in coldly clinical supply-chain terminology. Some state acquired uranium, another is expanding testing of missile delivery systems, etc etc. What gets left out of deterrence game theory bullshit is that banging on the war drums constitutes a form of nuclear proliferation by repeatedly putting the option on the table. As we get further away from the cultural memory of what it means to industrialize war, to efficiently kill thousands (really, millions) of people, joshing about having a nuclear button that is “much bigger,” “more powerful,” and “works” just goes to show that the very person with the unilateral authority to annihilate much of the planet within minutes is treating global holocaust like a fucking game.

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Deciding to leave Twitter is not easy. I’ve taken several breaks from Twitter before, typically during Lent. After a while, I don’t miss it that much. But I’ve always hesitated to cut the cord entirely for two reasons: Twitter has undeniably helped me accumulate a lot of social capital in my profession, and it’s been one of the most efficient and fun methods of professional networking I’ve ever found.

Archivist Twitter is a real thing, and it’s been a huge part of my professional identity formation. I joined Twitter right around the time I decided that being an archivist was the career path I would set out on. I used Twitter to follow archives conferences before I started attending them, and then I used Twitter at my first SAA to network. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations that start “hey I follow you on Twitter…”

On Twitter, I’ve found professional development opportunities, cultivated new collaborations, learned so much about my profession’s history and culture, and forged affirming and wonderful friendships that are the real deal, with people I’ve broken bread with offline, who I know will be in my life for a very long time. I strongly suspect that a lot of the public profile I’ve built within my field has been thanks to my presence on Twitter. Walking away from that is really hard.

I know how silly this must sound to people who haven’t had this experience with Twitter. Even though I’ve received some pretty ugly harassment on Twitter, my good experiences outweigh the bad. And that’s why it’s taken me months now to come to terms with exiting a service that clearly does not give a shit about the safety and stability of the world at large. I don’t know what my career will look like without the networking and informational capabilities of Twitter, or how promoting my work will change without Twitter. That’s scary in a culture that emphasizes rapid engagement, developing a voice (the nice writer word for brand), and being easy to reach for any opportunity that might land in your lap.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Quaker war tax resistance. Not because I think my decision is on the level with tax resistance, but because it’s about withdrawing one’s personal participation in the normalization of war machinery. On and off throughout history, many Quakers refused to pay taxes that fund militarism. This has often been at great cost to their livelihoods, liberty, and economic security.

I find the history of tax resistance refreshing within a current leftist atmosphere that tries to decouple personal individual morality from the political organizing work of dismantling larger systems of oppression. It’s a mistake for us to assume that choices made to reflect a personal moral stance are synonymous with the organizing work that dismantles oppression. Sometimes it’s a good thing just to make a moral choice that allows one to live with an easier conscience, even if the only person it “makes a difference to” is a single individual.

The phrase “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is true. But it’s not an excuse to step away from examining one’s life choices, and too many people treat it as one. You must start somewhere.

We’ve confused Twitter for a commons because it is fantastic at helping us find voices we wouldn’t encounter otherwise, which makes it easy to ignore that Twitter has been enclosed from day one because its only real goal is to make money. To continue to participate in the only form of capital it has – regular participation that drives advertising – is to enable its continuance as a platform that trades in bigotry, undermines democratic processes, and now, reaps money from the proliferation of nuclear threats.


Categorised as: life


One Comment

  1. Daria says:

    On one hand, it’s high time for a boycott. As a longtime “no nuke” protester, the “pro nuke” discourse sickens me. Dorsey should have banned DT months ago when he started attacking people personally, including by verbally assaulting women with sexually degrading terms. On the other hand, so many people I know have found community on Twitter and a freedom to be themselves that they might not have elsewhere.

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