• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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A Note on “48 Hours of Silence”

From the BBC News, on Monday morning:

A 48-hour boycott of Twitter by some of its users, protesting at the platform’s alleged lack of action on anti-Semitism has begun.

It was triggered by the actions of grime music artist Wiley, who shared several posts on Twitter on Friday.

Some of the tweets were deleted, but Twitter was criticised for taking time to act and leaving some tweets up.

…Those taking part in the boycott include MPs David Lammy and Rosena Allin-Khan, singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, actor Jason Isaacs, broadcasters Rachel Riley and Maajid Nawaz, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and entrepreneur Lord Sugar.

Ordinary users of the platform were also exhorted to participate in the “48 hours of silence”. As far as I can see, no-one chose to actually deactivate their account for the duration.

I doubt that anyone much would notice or care whether or not I’m Tweeting, and I had some misgivings about this particular form of protest. However, some users I respect were participating, and I’m in general agreement that Twitter ought to do more to remove hateful content, and so I decided to go along with the effort by declining to Tweet – although I did keep an eye on what was being posted.

As a one-off, I hope the protest has some impact, although a boycott that has an end date before demands are met is obviously no more than a symbolic gesture. It is not, though, an exercise I would be inclined to repeat. The fact is that Twitter is now the global public square, and if good faith users absent themselves, then bad actors (including elements in the mainstream media) will fill the vacuum with trash (of course, some bad actors also took part in the boycott for show, but that’s always the case with any issue). The only weapon against most of this is the circulation and amplification of good information.

Also, some people go on Twitter for personal support, writing or speaking about their health struggles, bereavements, or other problems, and it’s a hard thing if they are denied words of encouragement from a wider community. It also seems to me invidious that high-profile professional commentators should continue to enjoy media amplification through broadcasting and the press while ordinary people are asked to forego using the most far-reaching social media platform to talk about current affairs.

Of course, Twitter has to balance its dual role of communications infrastructure and publishing platform, and it will always be open to criticism. Not so long ago Twitter was being accused of overzealousness, and last month a number of British conservatives protested against this by establishing accounts on Parler – a rival platform that takes a rather more laissez faire attitude to hateful content as a matter of principle.