On Twitter, Conspiracy Theories, and Information Cascades

February 22, 2016

On February 9th, Twitter announced the formation of a council made up of over 40 organizations, of which Feminist Frequency is one. These organizations are not involved in micromanaging Twitter on a daily basis or making decisions with regards to action taken against accounts or tweets, but rather, have been assembled to consult with Twitter generally about how to best navigate the challenges of allowing freedom of expression while also fighting abuse. In the days since the announcement, a wild conspiracy has formed that presents me as an Orwellian villain with the power to control what others can and can’t say on Twitter, despite the fact that, again, Feminist Frequency is just one of more than 40 organizations on a council that also includes groups like GLAAD and the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Blog posts have been written, video rants have been filmed, and hundreds of tweets have been posted as this ludicrous conspiracy has spread. According to this conspiracy, any opinions I don’t agree with are being quietly silenced, while the people expressing them are being ominously “shadowbanned.” As the conspiracy spread, I went from just being a member of the council, to being in charge of the council. A few tweets even characterized me as being in charge of Twitter entirely!

Here is a very small sampling of tweets. Messages like these have been spreading for weeks:

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Of course there isn’t a shred of truth to this perception, but for the people spreading it, the truth is irrelevant. The tweets, blogs and videos are designed to incite rage and enlist more people to join the crusade against me. They are designed to make me out as a powerful enemy of free speech who is determined to crush the expression of any idea she doesn’t agree with, and they conveniently support the perception some have created that I am not a feminist pop culture critic but rather some kind of diabolical supervillain, hell-bent on creating an oppressive society.

This conspiracy and others like it are themselves a manifestation of misogyny, borne out of a deep distrust and hatred of women. They’re designed to foster fear and serve as a warning to other women about what awaits them if they challenge the status quo. Rather than replacing the pre-existing conspiracies, this new one fits neatly in with the others that have been and continue to be proliferated. It’s as if I’m a folk demon and this is yet another horror story people whisper to each other about me and, by extension, about what effects feminism may have on our culture if this imaginary menace is allowed to spread.

These absurd characterizations, unquestioningly accepted as true, then serve as the justification for more extreme forms of harassment. I know how this works because I’ve been down this road many times before. In fact, I talked about exactly this same phenomenon at XOXO in 2014, in my talk on information cascades and conspiracy theories. If you watch the talk now, you’ll see that while the story being spread about me may be different, the tactics haven’t changed at all.

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