Thursday, July 12, 2012

Spam... For #CdnPoli, It's What's For Dinner

Last night, the Canadian political Twitterverse exploded with indication -- from conservatives, at least -- over what appeared to be a censorship campaign against a Twitter account the Ethical Oil Institute has been using to promote its boycott of Lush Cosmetics.

Personally, I've never been that big a believer in boycotting critics of the oilsands. Boycotting them may hurt their business for a short period of time, but frankly I see it as just vengeful. A boycott may change someone's behaviour, but it doesn't change their mind. For supporters of the oilsands, the latter should be much more important than the former.

Now, with that aside, onto the censorship.

After a long Twitter conversation with Alheli Picazo, the alleged perpetrator of the censorship, I've personally come to the opinion that the entire affair is actually a mutual misunderstanding between Picazo and EOI. And I think it would be a good time to address what are some very important concepts.

Obviously, Twitter is still an emerging medium. Accordingly, it can often be difficult to classify the kind of interactions that take place over it. Take, for example, the belief popular amongst left-wing Tweeters that anyone who disagrees with them is a troll. It's almost certain that some of them are disingenuous in this -- it's simply a cheap shortcut to discount opinions of people who disagree with them. Others may believe it more genuinely, even if it's comically false.

But that's just one example. What's more important to the issue is how we understand what is or is not spam.

A quick case in point also involves Picazo, and took place a few weeks ago. Picazo recommended that her followers flag a pro-motion 312 Twitter account (Motion 312 is Conservative MP Stephen Woodsworth's motion to debate abortion). At that particular point, after quickly reviewing that account's feed, I actually agreed with her. The account was Tweeting identical messages over and over. Clearly an automated account in my view. So I agreed with her. Reporting that particular account for spam was just the right thing to do. Anyone who wants to support Motion 312 should come down here and debate like the rest of us.

As of the writing of this blogpost, the @BloodLushAlerts Twitter account has been suspended, so it's hard to see whether or not it was similarly sending identical Tweets. What does remain to be seen is that the user of the account responded to Picazo's suggestion that her followers report it for spam. She then reiterated her suggestion that it be reported for spam.

On its face, it may look bad. But I think there may be a better explanation for this than Picazo being censorious.

For one thing, Picazo seems to be operating with a different definition of spam than the rest of us. She defines "hardcore trolling" as spam. In her view, if someone is uninterested in any kind of actual dialogue -- and no hardcore troll really is -- then they're a spammer.

Does she have an argument? Absolutely she does. But did @BloodLushAlerts try to engage Picazo in dialogue? As a matter of fact, yes. Yes, they did. But this also led to a huge misunderstanding. In my view, I see it like this: Alheli Picazo misunderstood the intentions of the @BloodLushAlerts Twitter account, and recommended that her followers report it for spam. The operator of the account then misunderstood Picazo, and from there Picazo merely interrupted.

So what does my argument have in its favour? For one thing, history: in my view, Picazo was entirely right about the Motion 312 account -- as would anyone who received an unwanted "Truth About Tim" or "Queen's Park Update" Tweet, and reported the associated account for spam. For another thing, it has human nature on its side: both Picazo and the @BloodLushAlerts operator are human, and humans sometimes overreact.

Misusing Twitter's spam reporting procedures to censor other Tweeters has been a hot topic lately. Sheila Gunn Reid has been a victim of it. Others have as well. Mostly they tend to be conservatives, but Kikki Planet is fairly left-leaning, and she was victimized as well during the recent Alberta election.

I surmise that in this heated environment a lot of people -- including, at first, myself -- simply assumed that Picazo was maliciously censoring people. After a conversation with Picazo, I no longer believe that to be true.

As I understand it, Picazo still blogs at I'd say that the Twitterverse would benefit from hearing Picazo make her case for her definition of spam at greater lengths. I'd encourage her to make use of her soapbox there to tell her side of this story more publicly, and make her case for her definition of spam.

So far she seems to disagree with me about both things -- I consider trolling to be a problem separate from spamming, and that it should be handled in different ways -- but I genuinely think that she has a lot to add to this conversation.

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