Let’s all tame Twitter now

I have spent an odd few days on Twitter. Well, both on Twitter and not on Twitter actually.

On Friday I spent hours typing “thank you” tweets to people sending me lovely messages of congratulations after the announcement of my peerage. (And, by the way, if I can be forgiven a digression, thank you so much to the many members of community who have been in touch. I will try, if this doesn’t sound too pompous, to be a credit to the Jewish people. Or at least to my Mum, anyway).

And on Sunday I boycotted the site as part of a protest against people sending horrible threats and abuse and Twitter itself doing nothing much about it.

The #Twittersilence wasn’t hugely successful and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that by Sunday lunchtime I felt a tiny bit ridiculous. But I wanted to show solidarity with women who had received sexist and violent messages. And there was Jewish reason, too.

The writer and comedian David Baddiel has been drawing attention to a site called antisemitictweets.tumblr.com which simply and helpfully records examples of abuse against Jews. It is eye-opening and depressing. “Jews are evil….no nation ever liked them.” “Messi about to go to jail for tax evasion? Haha, I knew he was a Jew.” “Animals aren’t Jews, they don’t belong in ovens.” “How do you pick up 100 Jewish girls? With a dust pan.”

And on and on and on. These are not the worst ones mined from years of tweets. Most of these were within the last few days and I just picked them at random.

So I boycotted Twitter, even if it was ineffective and even a little bit self-righteous, because I think it is important to protest against incivility and this was the protest weapon at hand.

There are some who argue that social media are untameable and therefore it is a waste of time trying. There is also a feeling that it is almost a form of repression to insist on manners and order. The whole point of social media, goes this argument, is a sort of glorious chaos. It is wrong to interfere with free expression.

Well, I cannot agree.

To start with, I think it is dangerous to allow hateful antisemitic or sexist abuse to go unchecked. People do not tweet independently. They are influenced by others. If we fail to challenge abuse it will get worse and abuse will become the norm. Twitter and other social media are going to be among the dominant — perhaps the dominant — form of news consumption over the coming decades.

We can’t afford to allow abuse against the community to become the norm.

The other point is, I don’t accept at all the idea that social media can’t be civilised. The great challenge for Judaism is how to civilise behaviour and institutions. That, above all, is what religion is for. It is absolutely possible to use learning and persuasion and moral pressure to change behaviour.

It is simply nonsense to argue that Twitter is about freedom and we should all just shut up and put up with the consequences. It is not illiberal to challenge abuse, quite the contrary. Yes, social media reflects what people think, but it can also change that.

Lots of people manage quite happily by just not joining in. But while that is fine, absolutely fine for each individual, it isn’t a solution for the community as a whole.

Instead we should seize the power that social media has to do good. It is a way of spreading truth and on linking friends and of building alliances. And as I know from those wonderful messages, it is also a way of spreading kindness.

Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times

Last updated: 11:45am, August 9 2013