For those lucky enough not to remember the blustering, hysterical, left-baiting Andrew Sullivan of George W. Bush’s first term—before he was chastened by the disaster of the Iraq war and fell in love with Barack Obama—he returned for a bit on Tuesday. “Twitter has empowered leftist feminists to have a censorship field day,” he warned in a febrile post titled, “The SJWs Now Get to Police Speech on Twitter.” (SJW, for those fortunate enough not to be well-versed in Internet culture war lingo, stands for Social Justice Warrior.) The famous blogger may have given up his neocon delusions, rethought some of his attitudes towards abortion, even sort of come to terms with Hillary Clinton. But as he himself never tires of reminding us, he’s still a conservative, nowhere more so than when it comes to feminism.
Sullivan’s panic was occasioned by news that the small nonprofit Women, Action and the Media, or WAM!, is working with Twitter to try to make it more responsive to rampant gender-based harassment. The arrangement, contrary to Sullivan’s headline, doesn’t give WAM! power to decide what is and isn’t allowed on the service; it simply gives the group a direct line to Twitter to report verified cases of abuse and monitor their outcomes. “WAM! will escalate validated reports to Twitter and track Twitter’s responses to different kinds of gendered harassment,” says the group’s announcement. “At the end of the pilot test period, WAM! will analyze the data collected and use it to work with Twitter to better understand how gendered harassment intersects with other types of harassment, how those attacks function on their platform, and to improve Twitter’s responses to it.”
This has Sullivan bizarrely upset. He seems to believe that online harassment is not serious; in response to arguments that women, and particularly minority women, are being driven off Twitter, he writes, “How exactly? Does Twitter prevent women of color from using the service? Or is it simply that WAM believes that women cannot possibly handle the rough-and-tumble of uninhibited online speech?”
In a follow-up post, he speculates without evidence that the WAM! campaign resulted in the suspension of a number of anti-feminists who haven’t harassed anyone. “I actively support suspending abusive, stalking tweeters or those threatening violence,” he writes. “I just worry that some are using this to advance a left-feminist ideology through censorship of journalists.” This is the sort of paranoia that animated Gamergate—the idea that joyless Social Justice Warriors are out to corrupt the gaming media and turn games themselves into tools of ideological indoctrination—applied to an even bigger milieu.
God knows, I’m no fan of what some call social-justice Twitter, a designation I dislike because it’s an insult to social justice. Nor do I sympathize with pro-censorship tendencies on the left. But what we’re talking about here is largely an attempt to get Twitter, a private company, to enforce its own policies towards harassment so that it can no longer be used as a tool of gender-based terror. Obviously, to answer Sullivan’s facetious question, Twitter doesn’t prevent women from using the service. But its refusal to take its own rules against abuse seriously means that many women can’t be on Twitter without submitting themselves to a steady stream of rape and death threats, as well as even more frequent pornographic and racist slurs.