Sunder Katwala: Why ‘Positive Twitter Day’ is needed more than ever

Director, British Future

IMAGINE that social media didn’t exist. Would we still want to invent it, given what we now know? Well, I definitely would. We can sometimes talk so much about the strains of our always-on, hyper-connected world that we take its opportunities for granted. Yet they still often seem like minor miracles to me.

I think back to my attempts to keep up with football and cricket scores from the BBC World Service, when on holiday in India as a teenager. Now, not only can I watch cricket Tests from a poolside holiday in August, but can pick over every batting collapse and astonishing fightback in real time with family, friends and complete strangers who share a fascination with these great sporting dramas.

I may be a Twitter addict – sending 180,000 tweets as @sundersays over 11 years – but I have found it enormously useful professionally too, in hearing about new research and finding new allies. How odd it can seem, on meeting a regular Twitter interlocutor at a conference or public event, to realise that we’d never met before in real life.

While social media reduces the distance between us, it also amplifies our disagreements. My concern about the growing incivility of public discourse that led me to create #PositiveTwitterDay back in 2012 and to promote it in alliance with the blogger Guido Fawkes. It has become an annual fixture on the final Friday of August (this year on the 30th) seeking to nudge people to think about whether that more relaxed vibe of August might persist into September.

This year the bar may seem higher. The aim for more civility needs to not only survive the return to school or to work, but also the arguments in public life about how we might finally unlock the biggest political stand-off of our lifetimes over Brexit. There is all the more reason to join in this year – to show that we can promote a more civil online culture, for one day at least, and to deepen the conversation about how we shape the culture of these spaces the rest of the year around.

Twitter’s creator Jack Dorsey gives this mission a high priority too. His pinned tweet declares that “we’re committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress.”

There have been several initiatives to work out how to implement this over the last year and a half. I met Dorsey at Twitter earlier this year, together with other civic society groups who are seeking to use the platform as a force for good, to talk about the role that initiatives like #PositiveTwitterDay can play.

We agreed that users can do much to shape the online culture. But we do rely on the social media giants to play their role too, especially to put the foundations and boundaries in place against hateful conduct and abuse.

My recent experience in trying to report racist abuse on Twitter has captured how much the reality struggles to match the aspiration. Racism on social media has hit the headlines again in the last week. Leading footballers have challenged Twitter and Facebook to do more to stop shocking racist abuse against black players whose crime was to miss a penalty kick.

This can be a confused debate. We should be clear that it is the racists who are responsible, primarily, not the social media platforms. Nobody blames the Royal Mail if we hear about somebody being sent a death threat through the post. Where social media companies do have a responsibility is in how they deal with racism when it does occur – just as the football clubs in the 1980s had to deal with monkey chanting or throwing bananas, which created an atmosphere where racism was tolerated at clubs like Chelsea and Everton, before policing and a culture shift stamped it out.

Twitter’s response is very patchy. The worst abuse comes from repeat offenders. It is against the rules for banned users to create new accounts, but this is so weakly enforced that users openly boast about how many red cards they have ignored.

The rules against racism are surprisingly weak too. I have several times reported racist insults such as “you need to go back to India, street-sh**ter” only to receive an email back from Twitter support saying there is no violation of their rules in that. So the racists are responsible for the racism – but Twitter becomes culpable if its policies permit racist abuse when it is reported. As of last month, it is a violation of the hateful conduct rules to tweet “dehumanising” content against a faith group.

You cannot tweet “the Jews (or Muslims) are vermin who need to be expelled”. But tweet that about Indians, Asians or black people – those are tweets that Twitter will defend and uphold. This is much too narrow an interpretation of what racist harassment is.

Twitter is engaged in constructive dialogue with anti-prejudice NGOs, including British Future, TellMama, Hope Not Hate and many others. There has been increased action, and pressure to act, since the Christchurch mosque massacre.

If the platforms need to get the right rules and enforcement in place, the culture of social media will depend on what we make it. So let us make #PositiveTwitterDay this year a chance to demonstrate the positive culture that most users want.

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