The sort of violent harassment to which actress Leslie Jones was subjected this week from people who think that the reboot of Ghostbusters with an all-woman cast has somehow ruined their childhoods is nothing new. I have been subjected to it, as have countless other Black women with large Twitter followings.
What is new is that a famous Black woman—one who stars in one of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer—was the target of the harassment. And rather than ignore it, she shined a giant light on it. For hours on Monday, Jones posted screenshots and responses to the deluge of abuse she received, abuse so filthy and vile that I won’t sully this space by repeating it.
And Twitter was forced to respond.
Time will tell, however, whether that response will have any lasting effect on the way in which the company conducts itself, or whether after the fervor dies down, it will return to business as usual.
It was painful to watch Jones dealing with the harassment in real time. She seemed truly taken aback by the hatefulness directed at her.
I feel her pain. As Black women, we have to navigate the world in all its racist glory. It is damn near impossible to go a single day without thinking about racism, from “burning a cross on a lawn” to microaggressions that leave you wondering whether something someone said or did is racist, or whether it’s all in your head.
But in the real world—at least for me—racism tends to be a one-off occurrence. Racist shit happens just enough to ensure that you’re constantly aware of the color of your skin, and the skin color of those around you, but not so much that it’s overwhelming. Sure, every once in a while, you’ll find yourself in Tennessee sitting in a car with your best friend (who is also Black) with you in the back, and your two white girlfriends in the front. You’ll notice that the pickup truck in front of you at the gas station has a Confederate flag emblazoned on it with a bumper sticker that reads, “I like to go coon hunting.” And you’ll say to your white friends, “We’re going to stay in the car. Can you get me a bottle of water?” And you’ll laugh it off and add it to your collection of “Racist Shit that Happened to Me” stories. (Yes, this actually happened.)
But as a Black woman on Twitter, when the first thing you see when you wake up is someone calling you “nigger,” and the first thing you saw the day before that was someone calling you “nigger,” and the day before that, and the day before that, it is overwhelming.
(Certainly, it is not only Black women who suffer at the hands of Twitter misogynists, but too often articles written about harassment of women online focuses on the harassment of white women, and since Jones is Black, as am I, I am focusing specifically on the harassment meted out against Black women. Such gendered and racist abuse is known as misogynoir, a term coined by queer Black feminist Moya Bailey to describe misogyny directed at Black women. )
And it is enough to make you want to delete your Twitter account and, as Rebecca Shaw cheekily suggested, go live in a hollowed-out tree.
But that’s not really feasible, is it? Twitter is the digital equivalent to the public squares of old. It’s where people congregate to share ideas. And more importantly, for journalists, it’s where we go to engage people with our work. So deleting our Twitter accounts, or making them private, is not an option.
Moreover, we shouldn’t have to take such drastic measures. It was Twitter’s responsibility to ensure that its platform didn’t become a violent cesspool of hate, and it’s Twitter’s responsibility to fix its platform now that it has.
In response to the abuse directed toward Leslie Jones, the company finally took a step in the right direction: It banned one of the people who led the charge on the misogynoirist attacks on Jones—GamerGate and alt-right ringleader Milo Yiannopoulos, who is notorious for his outlandish behavior and targeted attacks on women and anyone whom he believes to be a dreaded “social justice warrior.”
But this isn’t a problem confined to the hate-filled rantings of a conservative journalist, and I refuse to congratulate Twitter on taking one small step toward cleaning up its platform.
Yiannopoulos is representative of a larger problem. And that problem is Twitter’s refusal to enforce its own terms of service while allowing racists, anti-Semites, and misogynists to harass the very people upon whom Twitter presumably relies to increase its stock prices. As of 2010, Black people comprised a quarter of Twitter’s user base. When I last wrote about this problem—a full two years ago—Twitter had just hired a “multicultural strategist” to head up plans to target Black, Latino, and Asian users for advertising. In the past two years, Black Twitter has become an even more powerful force on the social media platform, so much so that there are journalists dedicated to covering it. But when it comes to curbing the rampant abuse that we face, Twitter has been silent.
Sure, Twitter has taken some steps, but unfortunately those steps have done nothing to curb the abuse. Three years ago, after a British feminist who campaigned to have Jane Austen appear on a Bank of England note was subjected to relentless harassment, Twitter made mild changes to its abuse reporting protocol: It introduced a “report abuse” button that allows users to flag abusive tweets directly from Twitter, rather than having to go to a separate Report Abuse Form. But from my perspective, at least, nothing changed.
And earlier this year, Twitter announced that it had formed a Trust and Safety Council, saying that it would “ensure Twitter is a platform where anyone, anywhere can express themselves safely and confidently.” Oh really? How’s that working out, guys?
The answer is “not very well.”
In fact, the abuse and harassment seems to have gotten worse: Donald Trump’s presidential run has appeared to embolden racists who have been more open about targeting non-white people, in particular Black and Jewish people. That’s partly because Trump has, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, mainstreamed white nationalism, but it’s also partly because these people know that when it comes to curbing their behavior, Twitter will do fuck-all about it, despite its own written policies.
Twitter’s abuse and harassment policy reads:
Users may not make direct, specific threats of violence against others, including threats against a person or group on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, age, or disability. Targeted abuse or harassment is also a violation of the Twitter Rules and Terms of Service.
This seems simple enough. It’s hard to deny that what happened to Leslie Jones, and indeed what happens to Black women as a matter of course, is targeted abuse or harassment.
All of this could have been avoided. Black women on Twitter have been talking about harassment for years and practically begging Twitter to do something about it. Women like like Feminista Jones, Jamilah Lemieux, Shireen Mitchell, Mikki Kendall, and Ijeoma Oluo have endured relentless attacks from people whose purpose on Twitter is creating sock puppet accounts and serial accounts solely for the purpose of misogynoirist harassment.
So what gives? Why has Twitter been so stalwart in its refusal to do anything about its rampant abuse problem?
It seems that Twitter is an insular place where the engineers and tech people are primarily white and non-Black people of color, i.e., Asian men. As such, what could they possibly know about the sort of harassment that Black women suffer every day? Indeed, this past February, one Twitter employee, Brendan Carpenter, seemed positively shocked at the level of vitriol that is tossed around on Twitter on a regular basis, commenting, “Wow people on Twitter are mean” in response to rude tweets he received regarding Twitter’s plan to increase the character limit from 140 to 10,000 characters.
But it’s not just Twitter that is to blame. Blame must be laid at the feet of everyone who sees Black women under siege and ignores the racial component of the harassment, as the Women’s Media Center, an organization that I usually respect and support, did when it tweeted that Jones had “spent much of yesterday showing us why misogyny is alive and well.” To the media organization’s credit, they apologized for “mut[ing] the intersectional nature of abuse [Jones] suffered.”
The blame must also be laid at the feet of everyone who castigates Black women when they see us respond to or shine a light on the harassment to which we are subjected.
And so it was with Leslie Jones, who found herself in the position of not only shining a light on the hate speech but of pushing back against Twitter users who would have us believe that it is her fault for “feeding the trolls.”
“Stop saying ignore them or that’s just the way it is. Cause that’s bullshit. Everybody knows an asshole,” she tweeted. “Check them for their hate.”
Blaming harassment targets for the behavior of Twitter abusers is a common tactic. In fact, it is one embraced by Twitter itself, which frequently encourages users not to respond to harassing tweets—as if to say by responding to the deluge of hate, the target is asking for it.
But I know from personal experience—and anyone who followed Jones’ Twitter mentions and feed Monday also knows this—for every hateful tweet we respond to, there are 50 that we don’t. I have blocked 20,000 Twitter users and have muted probably the same amount.
And while I love Twitter and would hate to abandon it, I’m not sure if I can see myself putting up with this shit for another seven years. It feels like I’m in an abusive relationship with Twitter. Some days, Twitter is delightful. I live-tweet movies and trade jokes with friends. Other days, the weight of the harassment prompts me to contemplate deleting my account entirely. There are days I vow to take a break, but within an hour I’m right back on it, blocking racist and misogynist assholes while posting Beyoncé gifs.
I desperately want Twitter to fix this problem. And it’s in Twitter’s best interest to do so. Sure, the number of new Twitter users seems to have flatlined. But Leslie Jones quit Twitter on Monday night. And more and more women of color are abandoning the platform altogether.
Will I follow suit? Who knows.
What I do know is that the market is ripe for an enterprising company to create a Twitter-like platform that will ensure that people like me don’t wince every time they log on.
An actual Black Twitter for Black people?
Count me in.