Ethan Shone 30th August 2018
For most Twitter users, hate and abuse on the platform is likely something they’ve witnessed or come into contact with briefly. Scroll down into the chaos of replies beneath even the most innocuous tweet and chances are you’ll not have to search long for some good old-fashioned vitriol.
Was it always this way? It feels like there was a time when you went on Twitter to send gushing tweets to celebrities, or do some clever hashtag punnery. Now it’s just people screaming about Brexit and accusing everyone who disagrees with them of being a Russian cyborg.
So what can we do to combat online hate? There’s the report button, which yields mixed results and can, ironically, itself be abused by mass-targeted reporting. The other option is to fight fire with fire, as it were. This can be cathartic for some, entertaining even, but equally it can be draining and distressing and it probably doesn’t achieve a great deal, either.
One Twitter account has proposed a slightly different approach, and is seeking out abusive tweets and turning them into charity donations. Lucky Bastards is focusing (for now) only on hateful tweets including the word “bastard”, and they search the platform, replying to the worst examples to tell the offending user that their tweet has been selected, and a small donation has been made in their name to a relevant charity. In this way, they’ve already given away hundreds of pounds and likely inspired many more donations, to organisations like Show Racism the Red Card, the Jo Cox Foundation and Help4Refugees.
In what could be seen as a small act of defiance against the growth of his hate-filled movement, Lucky Bastards was set up the same weekend as Stephen Yaxley Lennon, known as Tommy Robinson, led a “free-speech” march in London, which galvanised his supporters on social media over that weekend. I had wondered if this was intentional, to launch the movement at a time when there would likely be an uptick in hateful activity, but the truth is bleaker.
“As much as I’d like to claim that as a clever point of planning, it was a pure coincidence that our launch coincided with that event. The sad reality though is that whatever day we had decided to launch it wouldn’t have been hard to find something awful that was going on somewhere to try and tie it in with. That’s just the state of the world these days.”
The climate is awful and we’re constantly surrounded by awful stuff
“Part of our working life is Twitter/social media etc., and we feel that the climate is awful and we’re constantly surrounded by awful stuff. Even on things you might agree with, there’s still so much unpleasantness. All of this serves to really drag down the quality of debate and just generally make things worse. So we did this small thing just out of a sense of ‘we’re in this world, wouldn’t it be nice to do something about it’ and it’s wasn’t anything much more profound than that really.”
The aforementioned charities are just the tip of the iceberg and a scan through Lucky Bastards’ feed will reveal dozens more that have received donations as a result of hate-tweets, covering a wide range of issues. Though, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are some subjects which come up more than others.
“Because the way of the world is, you can guess quite a lot of the causes — antisemitism, racism, refugees, homophobia are some of the bigger ones as well as trans-issues and a few others. We knew as we started out that we should probably draw up a list of worthwhile causes in those areas because we’re going to need a few, and then we started looking for the comments.”
“It’s a top-down approach of ‘these are the groups who seem to get the most abuse on Twitter’ and then looking at that and trying out a load of search terms. There’s basically a never-ending supply though.”
All of the comments that Lucky Bastards target are abusive and offensive, though a lot are actually pretty tame by internet standards. That’s not to say they don’t warrant a response like Lucky Bastards’, it’s more a testament to how truly abhorrent some corners of the internet and social media specifically are.
I hope what we do makes these keyboard warriors just look foolish and impotent
When Lucky Bastards reply to a hateful tweet or quote-tweet it, they are putting that message into the news feeds of all their followers, does this weigh on them at all? And are there some messages which are so offensive and hurtful, that to amplify them — even with good intentions and a small donation attached — would be more detrimental because it may well cause significant upset to Lucky Bastards’ followers, some of whom may well be a member of the community or social group attacked in the offending tweet?
“Yes, I think because we’re only ever putting it in people’s timelines in the context of it turning it into something more hopeful, it’s usually OK. Some of the stuff we’ve come across already is pretty awful. But, when you find these things online alone it’s one thing, but to see it with someone then blowing them a kiss and saying ‘we’ve just donated to charity because of this’ then it maybe stops it being as horrible. I hope that’s the point, that what we do makes these keyboard warriors just look foolish and impotent.”
There comes a point maybe perhaps where you don’t want to create bullying of someone who has tweeted something nasty
Interestingly, Lucky Bastards does have a degree of consideration for the people whose tweets are selected, too. This might seem surprising, given the nature of what they do, but as they’re already aware from a couple of incidents, misunderstandings can happen. Sometimes without context or when read a certain way, a relatively innocuous tweet can seem hateful. You might ask what the worst that can happen is in that case, that a charity gets a small donation as a result? No sleep lost there. But it’s not hard to envisage a situation, perhaps further down the line if Lucky Bastards’ following has grown, in which users whose tweets have been highlighted are then targeted for abuse themselves. Again, I won’t lose sleep over Nazis getting dogpiled on Twitter and I imagine you won’t either but this scenario, combined with the potential for misunderstandings, could lead to some difficulty.
“As we grow and as it continues I think there are a few different aspects of responsibility that we need to be aware of, there comes a point maybe perhaps where you don’t want to create bullying of someone who has tweeted something nasty because, you never know, most of these tweets seem to be done very mindfully and with that intent, but if someone’s just tweeted something nasty as a one-off then we don’t need to be instigating dog-piles against them. You know, a teenager whose football team has just lost and tweets something mildly racist is arguably much less of a concern than someone whose total output is racist or hateful.”
Though aware that by remaining anonymous they are opening themselves up to Soros-related conspiracy theories further down the road, Lucky Bastards members wish to be known only as ‘a group of people working in the media’. They’ve been firing off these donations for a few months now and have no intentions of stopping quite yet. But it stands to reason that their own money has to run out at some point, which has lead many people to offer to contribute money and help for them to continue this initiative. This reaction has taken the people behind Lucky Bastards a little by surprise.
For people who want to support what we’re doing is encourage them to retweet one of our tweets and say ‘I’m also donating £10’
“We’ve got some money put aside, which we’ve not quite burnt through yet! But we weren’t really arrogant enough to think ‘oh we’ll put a plan in place for when people inevitably want to join us or help out with money’ but yeah, now we’ve had lots of people asking to donate to us and send us money, but it feels like it could get very complicated and that there’d be a lot of governance involved, so we’ve decided against that.
“What we’ve settled on for people who want to support what we’re doing is encourage them to retweet one of our tweets and say ‘I’m also donating £10’ or whatever it might be — that way they choose the cause and feel like they’ve made a contribution, but not just that, the person who said the offending thing in the first place sees that it’s not just our funny little Twitter account which is against them, but normal people too, so it serves that purpose too.”
Now of course, nobody expects something like this to rid Twitter of all its nastiness, or change the minds of every racist, homophobe and antisemite on the platform, but if people are going to Tweet awful, awful shit — and they are — then some charity somewhere may as well make a little bit of money from it.
Ethan Shone 30th August 2018