Trolling, abuse and harassment on Twitter: the context of education (eduTwitter)

I will begin with a little context, for those of you who are not involved in education and social media in the UK. The issues of trolling, abuse, harassment, free speech on social media are general, so it is probably worth you tolerating an explanation of context to begin. Following this are my own views about how to deal with such issues.

In the last seven years, a growing group of activist teachers have been espousing a return to traditional teaching. An approach where the teacher leads and learning is characterised by the memorisation of facts, methods and information. It demands a strict approach to behaviour management. There is a widespread view that teaching methods should be assessed using  science-based research. There are teachers who share some of these views, but they do not believe in all these principles of teacher-led teaching, learning as memorisation or science-based education. For them traditionalism is not a panacea or a global solution to education. The traditionalists (trads) identify this dissenting group as progressives (progs). Progressives are all educators and teachers who are not traditionalists. I imagine the traditionalists view this more as a factional dispute. But I see it as a struggle of one group to assert power and a particular viewpoint over all of education. The traditionalist would view it as two tribes, trying to prove the validity and effectiveness of their preferred method over the other’s preferred method of teaching.

On Twitter, of a weekend, evening or during the school holidays, you will observe some intense interactions. Whether you see it as one side trying to assert their view or whether you see it as two tribes. Interactions are passionate, sometimes fierce, they can be aggressive, people get furious, things can become tense. Nothing every really gets resolved, the traditionalists don’t seem to persuade the progressives and vice versa. It is a stalemate, unresolved, tensions persist; it can appear really tense and tribal.

So you have the context.

I want to talk now – within this context – about trolling, abuse, harassment, insult and offence. First trolling. A trad may put a tweet on twitter, something like “progressives ignore science and harm kids in school [link to related news article]”. To the trad this looks like a fair comment. “It’s evidenced-based, it’s true, there is no arguing with it. It’s fact.” To the prog this is first-order trolling. “Oh! Dear God! It’s more complex than that! Why would they be so reductive?” They tweet: “Trads are like fascists, they want everyone to do it their way. Idiots.” Or something of the like.

Day-in-day-out, twenty-four-seven, you can find trolling and counter trolling. It may or may not erupt into combat. If a twitter battle ensues, the warriors rush in, daubed in their war paint. They arrive in hordes. Shoulder-to-shoulder they battle. A war of words in 140 characters. “Take that!” They cry. When pride is injured, tiredness takes over or they have something other to do, they limp back home.

It’s generally good fun. No one really gets hurt. Each army usually consist of the same people. They all know each other. They are sworn enemies, but they are regulars. Just like the Sealed Knot. Nothing ever gets resolved. No one ever says, after one of these exchanges, “You know what, I was wrong, let me join your gang.” Well, not as a result of a twitter skirmish anyway.

So trolling is OK generally. It’s a thing that happens on Twitter. It happens on British EduTwitter. It’s provocative, the language can be rich and colourful. The accusations and assertions and the ad hominem can be quite fruity, on both sides. It is mostly in general terms: “trads are like …” or “progs are like …”. You know, it’s bit like West Side Story.

Abuse is more serious. This involves singling someone out and attacking them individually. Intimidating and undermining them. If this persists, then it is harassment. Repeated abuse is harassment. It is up to the individual to deal with abuse and harassment when they are subject to it. It is hard and emotionally demanding.

In the first instance, if you find that you are subject to abuse and harassment on Twitter, it is important that you are assertive. If the abuse is concerned with race, gender or sexuality, then it should be reported to Twitter and to the police. If it is a threat of violence it needs to be taken seriously. The following advice is from Twitter:

Online abuse
Being the target of online abuse is not easy to deal with. Knowing the appropriate steps to take to address your situation can help you through the process.

When to report it?
We’ve all seen something on the Internet we disagree with or have received unwanted communication. Such behavior does not necessarily constitute online abuse. If you see or receive an reply you don’t like, unfollow and end any communication with that account.

If the behavior continues, it is recommend that you block the account. Blocking will prevent that person from following you, seeing your profile image on their profile page, or in their timeline; additionally, their replies or mentions will not show in your Notifications tab (although these Tweets may still appear in search).

Abusive accounts often lose interest once they realize that you will not respond. If the account in question is a friend, try addressing the issue offline. If you have had a misunderstanding, it may be possible to clear the matter up face to face or with the help of a trusted individual.

If you continue receiving unwanted, targeted and continuous replies on Twitter, and feel it constitutes online abuse, consider reporting the behavior to Twitter (see Twitter online support for further information).

Much abuse and harassment is at a lower level. It is still serious, upsetting and unhealthy, for all involved. In these circumstances, if you find yourself the subject of abuse, if it is directed at you personally, a useful starting point is to let the person know how you feel. This might be enough to make them stop. They might have been unaware of the impact of their words or actions. It might have been a misunderstanding. It is important that the person being abused lets the abuser know the impact of what they are doing. It is only the abused person who experiences those feelings and the interaction with the bully, it is only they that communicate this to the bully. An individual being abused may not feel they can do this. The abuser or harasser may seem so much more powerful. This is where friends can lend support and should encourage the individual to be assertive.

From the bully’s perspective, the testament of the abused can be very powerful, in my view it is more likely to change the character of interactions and relationships than punitive measures.

It may not work, the bullying behaviour may persist, if so then mute, block and report. But it is a an important and powerful first step.

I was involved in a discussion this morning about this (with a trad :)). Their view was that friends and associates should confront abuse on behalf of the person being abused. I disagree. In the prog versus trad context, this just exacerbates the tribalism and deepens tensions. It is important that your ‘tribe’, should you be associated with one, support you and not try to rectify the situation through confrontation, by proxy, with the bully. This leads to gang warfare and not to a productive solution. It also leads to false flags about online abuse i.e. using vexatious accusations of abuse in a harassing and intimidating way.

There are many things said and presented on Twitter that are offensive and insulting. It has to be remembered that offence is not necessarily abuse. If something is insulting or offensive and it is not aimed at you personally, you are not being abused, you are being offended. This is uncomfortable, but healthy. It is the exercise of free speech. If you don’t want to be offended do something else and don’t engage with social media. Offence as hatred toward a particular race, gender or sexuality is a hate crime that’s different. That must be reported.

Social media is a vibrant space for free speech and to share ideas. It should be kept that way. Hate should be called out. Prepare to be offended or insulted. Act assertively, if you are intimidated, bullied or abused.

On this issue, I welcome your comments below.