The Power of Silence
Updated: May 1, 2021
ALLYSHIP | TECHNOLOGY | LEADERSHIP
Today, at 3pm, EquALLIES is joining a boycott of social media in response to the ongoing lack of accountability and commitment to address online hate by social media providers. Silence is so often linked to compliance, but this weekend, it shows collective defiance of using platforms promoting connection and progress, as ones platforming hate. This article outlines some of my personal experiences of targeted harassment, how you can take steps to as a victim or ally after the boycott and I end with a little glimmer of hope.
My Masters thesis 'The Mobile Phone in Everyday Life' was published in 2005. It was from the Social and Political Sciences Faculty at Cambridge and involved working with school children and adults alike to understand how this pocket communication device was influencing relationships and behaviours and concluded that we can't always foresee the implications of our designs and actions; both positive and negative. The school children sometimes used the mobile phone to bully and exclude their peers. They would delete contacts from their other's phones, briefing everyone to tell the victim the same phone number '55 5555', effectively excluding them from social interaction out of school. Young people would create rules regarding missed calls and the quantity of text messages to judge new relationships, effectively curtailing their capacity to interact with meaning, whilst the adults tended to use the device to communicate.
In terms of functionality, the 'world wide web' was just being rolled out on the newest of handsets. It was grainy, difficult to read and very, very slow. Rumblings of a touch screen, large visible interface device were coming from America, and I'd heard that the iphone was going to revolutionise the market. So I regretfully, (if sensibly!) turned down the offer of a PhD. After all, the social impact of today's technology would be redundant by tomorrow.
Fifteen years later, and I couldn't have seen my conclusions playing out with such significance in the fight for equality. The mobile phone had advanced so much, a very high quality, equally devastating footage of a black man being murdered by a white police officer was disseminated across the globe. Adults and school children alike coordinated, organised and protested. The mobile phone was an instrumental communication system to connect and support progress.
Yet 2020 also demonstrated how toxic and damaging the mobile phone can be. Through social media, there were times people felt shouted at, bullied and belittled every waking minute of every single day as 'freedom of speech' equated to 'freedom to hate'. We learnt that public spaces in real life and online can be truly toxic, to individuals and communities. For example, a young woman sat with a handful of friends with a placard in my historic market hometown saying ‘Black Lives Matter’. She was verbally threatened and scorned by more than one group of people, and I, for the first time, had to question what kind of community I lived in and whether I was prepared to accept it. The physical pushback was nothing compared to the harm imposed on people of colour and their allies online. Yet the personal consequences were a frightening realisation that the town I lived in hosts some unpleasant individuals who took extreme offence at the work of EquALLIES and would go to some serious lengths to harm me, personally and professionally, when I stood up as an active ally.
I am not trying to detract from the racist abuse people of colour were experiencing at the time. Nor am I saying this is as bad as it gets. I know it isn't and people I care very deeply about have experienced far worse. However, I am using this space to demonstrate how far bullies, liars and cowards will go, when faced with change they don't understand and are unwilling to learn. Allies to victims of inequalities are targeted as well as the victims themselves, because allyship works and is rightly seen as a legitimate threat by those who are yet to understand equality improves living conditions for us all. Let me share my story;
‘Jenson Ford’ reached out with a friend request on Facebook last summer, posing as an ally, asking for my help as he was new to these conversations and yet sometimes felt conflicted. Of course, I volunteered to support them as much as I could and accepted the friend request. However, 'Jenson Ford' was actually a local man who we now threatens disabled people in their homes, makes fun of those with mental health issues and uses pictures of their *real* customers to Catfish people like me. Of course, they were right to lie about their name and employment, because their professional accreditation would be jeopardised with their harmful online activity.
Meanwhile, there was a private Facebook page with over 5,000 members, moderated and administered by a handful of people, including Councillor David Jack. In this private group, 'Jenson' and several of Jack's associates repeatedly made serious allegations about me, EquALLIES, it’s funding and our work. I realised 'Jenson' was no ally of mine, and certainly not actively interested in anti-racism. 'Jenson' starts here in a reply to a wonderful young woman, Mia Sykes, who is an active ally and mental health advocate. Please take the time to read her blog, Choosing Love, here.
I've since leant 'Jenson Ford' is also 'Bella Rec' - showing the desperate lengths real cowards and liars go to to disseminate misinformation.
It turns out ‘Jenson Ford’ doesn’t understand the voluntary nature of TED, the financial obligations of a Director or the legal benchmark for defamation.
When I challenged Jenson’s lies and cowardice on my personal page, using screenshots sent by friends in the group who hadn't been blocked, things got worse. The accusations became increasingly incensed and conspiratorial, from a close cohort, mostly hiding behind fake profiles. The ones not using fake profiles were Cllr Jack and a close friend, Peter Critton, who by small coincidence also runs a local Laptop Shop. I had to laugh - the role of tech in promoting hate goes from developer to shop floor, clearly! Here, I am brandished ‘dangerous’ in the same paragraph as ‘organised’ and ‘articulate’, making me wonder;
Why are 'organised' and 'articulate' women who promote equality such a danger to these men?
Note Paul Murphy stating “My black mate says…” Not the start of a statement I’d ever utter to speak for a whole demographic, but an indicator of where these individuals are in their level of understanding about diversity of thought, as well as anti-racism.
Note also the assumption of my political leanings to the left. As someone who has worked cross-party on conversations on equality, Peter Critton presents his factually devoid opinion of me as a "left wing fringe activist' as fact. He has whipped himself into a rather unfortunate state anticipating that my professional understanding of curriculum and CPD may be biased by my values. Luckily, my values align perfectly with the Nolan principles and British Values, so his concerns are an unfortunate waste of his time. One can only wonder why he'd fear inclusion based consultancy and training?
Despite requests to Facebook about the site (of which I’d been blocked) to remove the damaging content, I was told there was nothing they could do. Facebook is a platform where you can say whatever you like to get the results you crave. One need look no further than Trump, Brexit and Cambridge Analytica to know that. So, I called the police for advice as I was uncomfortable with a coward and liar taking the time to create fake profiles, pretend to want my help, research my business, my home address and direct this group of people's attention to me with this misinformation. I have a young family and at this point, the town was actively being targeted by the far right, neo-nazi group, the Patriotic Alternative. The police told me to delete Facebook. As the victim of targeted harassment, I should try and ignore it. I roll my eyes to this day. I don't blame the police for inaction. Their resources are limited. The legisaltion doesn't exist to equate online harm to physical harm. Yet I couldn't shake the notion;
Just like women shouldn't wear headphones or short skirts to protect themselves from physical harm, I should delete my online presence to avoid online harm.
The fixation on me grew, possibly as overt racism was easier to evidence under the Equality Act. One post outed my husband’s profession as a Police Officer as one where he should ‘reign my gob in’. Given my experience of VAWG and knowing they'd watched and critiqued my TED, I was again triggered that these individuals thought a woman speaking up should be 'reigned in'. At this point, my husband and I decided to escalate to the Police again, who placed a 999 flag on our home. I was somewhat disappointed it needed one of their own to be implicated in the activities for me to now feel safe, but equally, I was glad to have a sense of security that online actions have real life consequences. I have the right - as does every other citizen - to feel safe and comfortable in my own home and community.
Sadly, it was also at this point that I reflected, if this group of individuals are so threatened by organised and articulate women with opposing views, how do they respond to the other women they interact with, their customers, suppliers, loved ones and neighbours? How much harm do these opinions thumped out on keyboards influence their day to day interactions? How much does it harm their own potential and that of the ones close to them? Should their loved ones with opposing views be silent and compliant, too? Do these men ‘reign their gobs in’ if their partner's oppose them, like my husband ought to?
Note that the meme used to ‘mock’ my husband’s profession are officers celebrating Pride, in response to my role as an active anti-racist ally, having called out a sitting Councillor's misogyny. This highlights why intersectionality is critical. We don’t address inequalities by segregating them into hierarchies of need. Bullies are likely to target you, whatever your difference, so joining forces to understand, influence and prevent discrimination across the board, is the way to address inequalities.
Now, the facebook group has been archived. I don't know whether Facebook or the Administrators took the initiative, but I welcome the outcome. If the action was taken by Cllr Jack, it demonstrates how much pride he and his cohort held in their views, and the confidence held in defending it. Once lockdown eases I'm looking forward to going into The Laptop Shop and introducing myself to owner, Peter Critton. I'm keen to see the reaction as he comes face to face with such a 'dangerous' woman. Maybe he'll be fine, surrounded by all those keyboards to defend himself! 😉
So, the long and the short of this experience is that when people in your workplace, community or school are challenged, they will react. Just like the school children used mobile phones to bully, it seems the grown ups use tech to coordinate and achieve progress in unity. Although this was a horrible, intrusive and highly upsetting experience, for the many examples of hate and targeted harassment I’ve witnessed, it pales into insignificance compared to the friends and associates allyship has brought into my circle.
Short Term: Use your power to tell the platforms; LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, today, that enough is enough. You will not use our voice on their platform as long as they fail to address hate. Boycott from 15:00 Friday 30th April to 23:59 Monday May 3rd.
Medium term: here is the advice I would share with victims and allies:
Know, you are not alone. Targeted harassment says far more about the offender’s insecurities than it does about you. Hold a mirror to each of their hurtful comments - bullies often lean on their worst fears as a means to wound others.
Ally Up. If you are targeted, create a chain of defence. Send the offensive message to a small group of your friends. Ask them to move from a role of Bystander to Defender, to report the content and block the user themselves, after forwarding it to a small group of their friends to report the content and block the user, etc. By taking action and blocking the offender, the offender’s reach becomes more and more limited, whilst notifying the provider that the online abuse is occurring. The target is no longer able to receive that Offender’s hate, and those not personally hurting from the offensive content are aligning to prevent it from repeating.
Speak Up. If it escalates and you fear your safety, inform the police. They are limited in how they can respond due to legislation and resourcing, but having a formal record may prove useful in the event of prolonged harassment. The Metropolitan Police published this guidance, but refer to your local force for more guidance.
Stay well. When you are being targeted online, the toll on your mental health can be damaging. Implement your wellbeing strategies and reach out to professionals if you need.
Share your tips. As a proudly ‘dangerous, organised and articulate’ woman, I would love to collate people’s lived experiences, anonymously or with your permission, if this article strikes a cord. Let us know via www.equALLIES.com
Campaign your MP. For years now, the conversation regarding accountability for policing online spaces has gone in circles. Whether it is the responsibility of the legislature or the tech firms, please let your opinions be known. No-one is truly anonymous and unaccountable in the public space, and we need to protect the damage occurring in the online space. Find your MP contact details (and lots of juicy vote, expense and asset info here)
Long Term: Having been privy to conversations about how to tackle this problem from a technical, legal and equality, diversity and inclusion angle, I understand that some humans will flex to change in ways political, legislative and enforcement 'engineers' may not anticipate, but...
… There is Hope
I was going to include here a screenshot of a disturbing example of hate I witnessed just this week, but there has been a bitter-sweet change. It demonstrated how a collection of individuals - or one with multiple fake accounts - could target hate at a young person of colour. Each account was “anonymous” with a similar cartoon profile picture and obscene handle, and they had formed a group on Twitter. None of the accounts were individually guilty of saying anything offensive, but one after the other they typed capital letters in the stream of the victim to spell out an extremely racist and offensive term. Individually innocent, collectively guilty of harassment and malicious communications.
I can't include a screenshot as the victim has now deleted their account. The haters have won, because the victim's voice has now been silenced. They are moderating their access to the positive potential to connect and coordinate with people via social media. However, it looks like Twitter has taken positive action and suspended the accounts of the perpetrators, irrespective of their individually 'innocent' action. A link to the event is here, but please be warned, some terms are of a sexual as well as racist nature.
One wonders whether the solution will be a collaborative response from legislators, criminal enforcement and tech giants? The real need for anonymity (for example, for safeguarding purposes for people who have been stalked), can be managed with enforcement agencies, and those who crave anonymity for other reasons may be more likely to moderate their online tone if they know how badly it reflects on them, their business or employer, their family and community?
Really, I know that as long as humans have the capacity to change and evolve, we will need social 'engineers' in each industry to adapt with our behaviours. In a constant process of improvement, working together; businesses, schools, politics and media, we will shape a future where we can all thrive.
I’m keen to hear your thoughts - but only via www.equALLIES.com as we’re off social media this weekend! 😉