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i won’t debate you on twitter
Depending on who you ask, I am:
a power-hungry, fascist Ukrainian who wanted to censor people and send men with guns to Americans’ houses when they said something I did not agree with;
or an unqualified, immature Russian stooge;
or a mentally unstable, hyperpartisan young woman unfit for government service (seemingly because I used to perform in musicals);
or an influential Democratic operative whose work was somehow critical in enabling the biggest perceived political scandals of the last six years.
In reality I am none of these things. When these narratives about me were first spread, I was a very tired pregnant lady who had recently taken a job in public service and badly needed a nap. Now I am the exhausted new mother of an infant who recently left that job in public service, and sleep is in even shorter supply. When I scroll through Twitter, bleary-eyed during middle of the night nursing sessions or sprawled on the couch during baby’s naptime, my mentions are still full of people demanding I debate them, or answer for a five-year-old tweet that they’ve totally decontextualized and misinterpreted, or defend every misstep the U.S. Government has ever committed. Some of them are not worth engaging with and earn an instant block, like the man who called me “Joe Biden’s cumdumpster,” or the people who believe innocent Ukrainian civilians deserve to be slaughtered in their homes based on lies the Russian government and the Trump administration spoon-fed them over the past several years. Others should know better: tech executives, entertainers who fancy themselves centrist or libertarian or nonpartisan, and self-appointed investigative journalists who, one would assume, have basic reading comprehension skills.
These are the folks with whom I’ve tried to engage, with the far-too-optimistic intent of correcting the record and demonstrating that I am a reasonable human being, emphasis on the human part. But Aristotle’s ethos and logos can’t crack the pathos of Twitter, where the dunk rules the day. Immediately, my good faith attempts at discussion almost always devolve into whataboutist demands for debates that are entirely purposeless. While those with whom I’m engaging believe I deserve to be interrogated (and often believe I deserve to be abused!—but that’s a story for another week), they refuse to interrogate themselves.
A.R. Moxon posted an interesting thread about Twitter’s debate culture a few weeks ago; ultimately, he concluded that he should only spend time engaging with those who are persuadable, or as he put it, “people of good intent lacking words and concepts to put to things they sense, but can't quite yet articulate.” This is how I’ve always tried to engage, even through the shitstorm that has been the last three months of my life. That approach is part of a list of maxims I developed to fight back against the online ecosystem of inhumanity in 2019. “If someone you don’t know pops up in your mentions,” I wrote then, “only engage with them if they are doing so in good faith. If their second reply shows they are not engaging in good faith, mute the thread and move on.”
Like Moxon, I have tried to engage only with those who seem to be persuadable. The problem I’ve recently encountered, however, is that so few people—even those with credentials that paint them as a reasonable discussant—seem to be the good faith, persuadable type. It doesn’t matter if I present them with a third-party fact check or documents that directly contradict what they are alleging; they have no interest in the truth. All they care about is how they can profit, whether monetarily, politically, or in engagements, a.k.a. internet currency.
My 2019 post and the maxims by which I governed my time online now seem incredibly twee; that version of myself hadn’t yet been labeled Joe Biden’s fascist-communist-groomer-transgender-Orwellian-ugly-barren-evil-stupid-unqualified-hyperpartisan-insane cumdumpster. My internet maxims need an update. So I present: my new rules for online engagement.
No ad hominem attacks (no change). I (still) can’t advocate for a better internet if I swipe at the lowest-hanging online fruit.
Previous: Engage with those operating in good faith. Now: I won’t debate you on Twitter. I will engage very little, if at all. There are too few people who are persuadable, too few people engaging in any semblance of good faith. Those who are can find my long-form, thoughtful writing and engage with me there if they choose. This newsletter is a good place to do that. But I refuse to waste my time and dwindling energy proving to people who hate me what I know to be true: that I am a good, reasonable, value-driven individual.
Previous: Mute liberally. Now: Practice blocktivism. I used to be a happy muter. Now I am a copious blocker. I use BlockParty App; it allows me to automute much of the noise on Twitter and block accounts who have engaged with abusive or defamatory tweets about me. Thanks to my increased block count, I never have to see most of the abusive garbage that people send my way in their attempts to bully me out of the public sphere. Blocking also means that people intent on harassing me have to jump through more hoops to do it—they have to open an incognito window or use an alternate account to see what I’m posting. Don’t get me wrong; some people who are obsessed with me still do it, but at least it’s harder for them, and they shout straight into the void of my block list.
Previous: Move testy conversations to DM. Now: Honestly, who has the energy? Yes, I still think more human-to-human, personalized interactions are a net positive for online discourse. But I don’t have the wherewithal to engage with even one out of 100 of the @Joe67239467s challenging me to debates on a daily basis. It cannot be left to the polite women to gently nudge the misbehaving boys of the internet back to the manners their mother taught them.
Previous: The internet doesn’t have to be terrible; share the things that make it good. Now: The internet is pretty terrible. Carve out a private sliver of the internet where you can celebrate the good stuff. I used to share more of it publicly, but as I wrote this week on my new public Instagram account—which I was forced to create in reaction to thousands of people attempting to harass me on the account I’ve had for eleven years— “that level of online intimacy and authenticity is [...] something that is totally off-limits to me now.” The birth of my child, pictures of my pets, my colleagues’ excellent work, even my innocuous hobbies—they’ve all been lied about, ridiculed, and ripped apart by anonymous online hordes just for their association with me. So I need to celebrate them more privately now. That’s probably the hardest of these shifts for me to accept; that Senators, pundits, “independent journalists,” and people using stolen names and profile pictures can say whatever they like about me and others without consequence. The consequence for us, their targets, is that we can no longer be so free with what we say or share.
While I might have to engage differently now, to the dismay of my many, many trolls, I am not shutting up. Enter this newsletter. I’m starting a new position in September and with an infant at home, realistically I have no idea what my writing and research schedule is going to look like in the coming months. But I do know that I am pretty fucking pissed off and I have a lot to say.
I won’t debate you on Twitter, but I might write about some of the questions that come up here. The assholes who have been cyberstalking me for the past three months will have to pay to read my answers, though, as this newsletter will only have one free issue per month. Happy subscribing :)
[If you have no idea what events precipitated the abuse that I’m talking about (1) can we trade lives? (2) listen to this.]
What I’ve been reading
Annalee Newitz, “Twitter is becoming a lost city” - I liked this essay about why Twitter is going the way of MySpace. Newitz compares Twitter’s demise to that of the desolate offline urban metropolises she studies. “Twitter isn’t becoming a vibrant but different social space that belongs to a new group of people,” Newitz writes, “it’s being abandoned.” The question is, what comes next, and is there any hope it will be better than “this hellsite?”
Emily Schultheis, “‘Nobody helped me’: Austria shaken by suicide of doctor trolled by anti-vaccine haters” - a heart-wrenching story about an Austrian doctor driven to suicide after receiving death threats because of her participation in public education about COVID-19. She reported her harassment to the Austrian police, who encouraged her to “be less public.” This is a common suggestion to those on the receiving end of abuse. It is not one we should accept; as in my own experience, it means there is no consequence for those purposefully attempting to drive people (often women and those of intersectional identities) they disagree with out of public discourse.
As ever, thanks for your support.