How Twitter can ruin a life

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From Vox:

“In a war zone, it is not safe to be unknown. Unknown travelers are shot on sight,” says Isabel Fall. “The fact that Isabel Fall was an unknown led to her death.”

Isabel Fall isn’t dead. There is a person who wrote under that name alive on the planet right now, someone who published a critically acclaimed, award-nominated short story. If she wanted to publish again, she surely could.

Isabel Fall is a ghost nonetheless.

In January 2020, not long after her short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” was published in the online science fiction magazine Clarkesworld, Fall asked her editor to take the story down, and then checked into a psychiatric ward for thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

The story — and especially its title, which co-opts a transphobic meme — had provoked days of contentious debate online within the science fiction community, the trans community, and the community of people who worry that cancel culture has run amok. Because there was little biographical information available about its author, the debate hinged on one question: Who was Isabel Fall? And that question ate her alive. When she emerged from the hospital a few weeks later, the world had moved on, but she was still scarred by what had happened. She decided on something drastic: She would no longer be Isabel Fall.

As a trans woman early in transition, Fall had the option of retreating to the relative safety of her legal, masculine identity. That’s what she did, staying out of the limelight and growing ever more frustrated by what had happened to her. She bristles when I ask her in an email if she’s stopped transitioning, but it’s the only phrase I can think of to describe how the situation appears.

Isabel Fall was on a path to becoming herself, and then she wasn’t — and all because she published a short story. And then her life fell apart.

In the 18 months since, what happened to her has become a case study for various people who want to talk about the Way We Live Today. It has been held up as an example of progressives eating their own, of the dangers of online anonymity, of the need for sensitivity readers or content warnings. But what this story really symbolizes is the fact that as we’ve grown more adept at using the internet, we’ve also grown more adept at destroying people’s lives, but from a distance, in an abstracted way.

Sometimes, the path to your personal hell is paved with other people’s best intentions.

Like most internet outrage cycles, the fracas over “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” was enormous news within the bubble of people who cared about it and made barely a blip outside of that bubble. The full tale is amorphous and weird, and recounting its ins and outs is nearly impossible to do here. Just trying to explain the motivations of all involved is a task in and of itself, and at any rate, that story has been told many times, quoting others extensively. Fall has never spoken publicly about the situation until now.

Link to the rest at Vox

PG wonders why outrage cycles exist and why, with so many intelligent people worried about the damage they cause and the mindless hate they include, we have not discovered a way of short-circuiting them and blunting their impact.

PG wonders why there isn’t an ad hoc anti-outrage group that can leap into action as soon as the beginning of an outrage cycle is detected.

PG doesn’t condone or encourage online bullying, but he can imagine a relatively simple computer script that could fill an outrage bully’s online accounts with so many objections to the wrongful outrage posts/messages that the bully would have more than a little difficulty digging through the incoming objections. Certainly, such action would seem to catch the notice of Twitter, Facebook, etc., etc., that something strange was happening.

An online bully storm seems to be ready to break towards all sorts of different political targets that a reverse anti-bully storm would seem to be equally easy to organize.

Again, PG doesn’t condone group attacks on anyone, but does think that an offender who receives internet-based blow-back for improper attacks on others might be somewhat deterred from conducting further vicious attacks on others.

But PG is a naif about much of this.

5 thoughts on “How Twitter can ruin a life”

  1. But PG is a naif about much of this.

    Sadly so. Many sites are best likened to junior high and high schools – the majority of them, anyway.* There are bullies that are related to (or are related to friends of) the teachers, the principal, the school board, the union bosses, etc. These bullies can get away with anything, and not be called on the carpet. But any unconnected student that does so will find themselves expelled post-haste. The “connection” on web sites, of course, is being of the “correct” ideological persuasion.

    This definitely applies to Facebook and Twitter, which are the biggest, and quite blatantly Left leaning; many other sites too, where you might not think to expect it, such as a knitting pattern site that canceled a contributor who submitted a pattern for a MAGA cap. It is not necessarily a sin exclusive to the Left, though; I see the same thing on many Conservative leaning sites also.

    * An acquaintance of mine goes a bit further and likens the internet to an all-girls high school. Having no experience with those (obviously not as myself, and not through any relatives, either), I do not know how accurate her view is, but I’ll take her word for it.

  2. Having seen such outraged mobs, my opinion is that other people’s opinions are not my concern.

    From a practical perspective:

    1. Never respond in anger.
    2. Know how to respond to confrontations.
    3. Know when it is pointless to comment.
    4. Then mute the comment.
    5. Block those stoking the outrage that are clearly Trolls.


    Unless you’re Larry Correia: Then be like Larry and have fun.

  3. It used to be the case that the best, most effective strategy was the easiest and most obvious:

    Ignore it.

    These online mobs often grow out of the internal drama of groups and sub-groups. It’s a game played out in social life, remarkably like the same stuff you’d see in any high school.

    If you stop playing the game, then it stops mattering. You can’t “checkmate” a person who isn’t playing chess. Of course, so many people get invested in these games to the point that they don’t even realize they can disengage. The virtual realities warp into an identity and group-respect problem.

    As a wise man once said, walk away from the screen. Close your eyes.

    That’s not so simple when you get on the radar these days. If you have a job, or any platforms that can be shut down, or even friends and family, they’re all at risk too. Once the mob identifies you as the enemy, they’ll go after any weak points.

    While that doesn’t change the basic calculus — if you can survive the 3-5 day news cycle, it will go away and you’re mostly okay — it does raise the stakes.

    I don’t have an answer to this, short of lowering your online profile to the bare minimum, opting for strong pseudonymity, and knowing how to respond tactically when/if this happens, e.g., say nothing, admit nothing, and above all DO NOT apologize under any circumstances, for any reason.

    • It’s worse: They harass you in real life too. Mobs have shown up at people’s residences.
      Anonymity is no guarantee but staying out of big cities should reduce the risk a lot.

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