The social media Purge
I was intrigued by a tweet that went out the other day. Caitlin Johnstone (@caitoz), after tweeting that John McCain was a warmonger, had her account unceremoniously suspended. Twitter users raised enough of a ruckus that it was reinstated, as witnessed by her celebratory tweet. I was glad to see her back online, yet at the same time I don’t view this as a victory. In recent years I’ve been keeping count as left-wing and pro-Palestinian voices that I follow on social media have announced their warnings, suspensions, online jailings, or recreated accounts (Twitter is doing a secondary purge of these). The shift to actively purging such voices, mimicking the real world, looks to be thorough and permanent on the various virtual conveyors of what goes for free speech these days.
Media coverage of account deletions has, on the contrary, focused primarily on “alt-right” (a liberal term for fascist) accounts. At the same time, liberals have been the first to champion freedom for such fascist voices, while simultaneously and falsely equating “far-right” and “far-left”, as witnessed by attacks on antifa movements. The algorithms in use seem to favor the continued existence of high-volume accounts, and reveal a reliance on Twitter’s reporting mechanisms. Organized groups use these to silence those they want to see offlined. These mechanisms, used by both reactionary right-wing as well as centrist “blue wavers”, are resulting in a compounded effect against left-wing organizations and their accounts. For just one small example, it has been a year since the anti-Islamophobia bot that I programmed, @KamalShaqi, met its own demise on Twitter.
To backtrack a little bit: In 2010, I had an online web site where I posted blog items, book reviews, and other personal writing, much of it related to my adoption from Lebanon, my return to that country in 2004, and my twelve-year search for family. At the time I didn’t see a nascent Twitter as valid for much; I avoided Facebook completely; I didn’t own a smart phone. The online realm demanded a constant presence, and such use came with a bombardment of ads and a narcissistic focus on self. In an effort to challenge this, I imagined an automation of the process, posting on platforms without actively using them. It occurred to me that it might be possible to use social media “in reverse”, driving traffic to web sites and blogs; smaller, safer spaces to discuss issues and activate.
All the same, I did appreciate the true chronological aspect of fledgling Twitter, as well as the ability to find organizations similar to the artists’ collective I had started in Beirut in 2009 (@jamaalyad). Using my Perl programming skills, I studied the Net::Twitter module which allows for access to Twitter’s API, and I tried my hand at setting in motion an automaton that would act as just such a middleman. I created an intervening app as Twitter requires, and various blogs’ feeds starting flowing into Twitter timelines (@transracialeyes, for one example). My interest was piqued; once I explored further, I started to see some interesting potential.
I hacked together a few “Twitterbots” as proofs of concept. I envisioned them as explorers of language, a foil for popular understanding and perception of certain topics. The random sampling via search phrases revealed that there were strata of Twitter users. It was interesting to me (anthropologically speaking) to shed light on this aspect of how Twitter was used, the notions of what makes for public expression, as well as to document such language use in a separate Twitter account. On one end of the spectrum were quite-local users, with a few followers, using Twitter as a kind of private chat room, like AOL started up with back in the day. The language here was coded and vernacular; a popular discourse. On the other end were the soap boxers, seeking followers and retweets, who tended to speak in a quite different manner, pedantic and overbearing; the dominant discourse, as it were.
The bots I programmed were quite specific in terms of their focus. For example, I had a bot that did nothing but call out those praising Steve Jobs for “rising to the top” as an adoptee (based on the “What’s Your Excuse?” meme). I had another that documented the valid popular cultural disdain for formalized adoption as a practice (@adoptionhonesty), which is still running. Logan Smith’s account @YesYoureRacist intrigued and inspired me, but it left out a huge chunk of such discourse in terms of Islamophobia as far as I was concerned. The virulence of the hatred spewed online frightened me: After an article about my own conversion appeared in the press, my blog comments immediately filled up with hateful messages. I decided to start up a bot that explored Islamophobia online; an “extension” of what Logan had started.
Go kill Arabs
“Go kill Arabs” was one of the first phrases searched on by the new bot, which I dubbed @KamalShaqi (for the record: The account pictured above sussed out via this phrase is still active.) The name for the bot came from a particularly ridiculous epithet (and another search phrase): “camel jockey”. In my transliteration “Kamal” is the word for perfection and “Shaqi” is that for “brat” in Levantine Arabic. A bad pun, to be sure, but also an attempt to take back the term on some level. To clarify further: The bot was not a knee-jerk response to such epithets online based in identity politics; it was an attempt to organize and examine such speech acts in terms of source populations, their class, upbringing, identification, etc. Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discourse follows up on every other declared-enemy “Other”, as subjectively defined by Anglo-Saxon/Calvinist capitalism. H. L. Mencken’s book The American Language reveals that this includes every immigrant group currently categorized under the rubrik of “white”. The bot dipped into the conversations on Twitter, pulled out segments of them and brought them to light, creating an ongoing snapshot of their online use.
The search terms were broken down into levels of timeliness, to enable a kind of “current trends” on the one hand, balanced with long-term persistent tropes on the other. At the time of its shutdown, there was a trend in the discussion of the war on Afghanistan as a failed drug war: (‘White Heroin Crisis’, ‘US Afghan Invasion Restored Heroin’). Other trending topics included Obama’s deportations, ICE raids (both predating Trump), ending the Saudi war on Yemen, anti-Muslim hysteria, etc. There were searches on the phrase “We Teach Life, Sir”, from the poet Rafeef Ziadah (@rafeefziadah); on similar purges in American history such as the Japanese Internment Camps, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Mexican deportations, aggressions against Sikhs, etc.; on various forms of solidarity with Palestine (Irish, Black, etc.); as well as Sunni/Shi‘i co-existence.
Phrases such as “kill the Arabs” in Hebrew or “rafidhi” as dog-whistled in Arabic reflected the ability of Twitter users to hide behind seen-as secondary languages (from an Anglo-centric perspective) and Kamal called out such accounts. To note is that these are not included in the current purge of accounts on Twitter from what I can see; Twitter tends to allow the most reactionary voices to remain online. General themes of dispossession, displacement, and disinheritance especially the growing calls to end citizenship for various internal minorities were brought to light. Finally, highlighted were Liberation Theologies and Theologists, both Christian and Islamic, as well as the arts and historical references of those civilizations now slated for destruction; a kind of depressing pre-emptive memorialization.
A rocky start
Kamal’s debut proved rocky: With few followers and no track record the bot was shut down by Twitter following “report user” input from those quoted. I turned the quoting off, and I added various news feeds from those documenting Islamophobia, bloggers in the Global South, Palestinian news organizations, and politically left-wing sources of information. The feed was a kind of aggregator that struck a chord with many online, and the follow count started to grow. I left it running in the background, every so often going in to check on followers, follow kindred spirits back, research new phrases, etc. The account ran in this “stealth” mode for a year.
During this time, Twitter started its descent into the toxic cesspool it is today. I revisited the account, and slowly started enabling its search phrase features. I chose a handful of emoji characters reflecting disgust and disdain and these became the limit of Kamal’s commentary on the tweets he reposted. I expanded the ability of the bot to reply to inane and senseless tropes, for example, that Islam trained children to kill. This was done via counter-examples that challenged this offensive projecting, for example images of Israeli girls signing bombs destined for Lebanon, as well as kids playing at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
Responses as seen in tweets and direct messages grew increasingly violent in terms of imagery, language, avatars, and threats. One user sent me a picture of his Bowie knife; I commented on its size and told him that as a Scot, he should probably be careful concerning his claim to to be Anglo-Saxon and white. Checking followers’ avatars revealed a focus on guns, KKK hoods, Crusaders, the American flag, and war as valid images (according to Twitter) of self-representation. This was quite lurid and dark, but it could also be ludicrous, for example, references to bacon representing an imagined Islam-countering kryptonite, or images of wrestling superstars and Asterix. All of it was deeply disturbing, and revived memories of growing up in the States as well as years lived in France, where dealing with these tropes is a constant battle.
At a certain point the tactic of widespread reporting of accounts shut down Kamal yet again. In my appeal, I stated:
I’ve documented below the reason I feel my account should not be suspended. My ultimate goal is to engage in conversations that show that the racism and Islamophobia I am documenting is unfounded. I mean to say that ultimately, and it will take some time, I would like to think that this account might bridge difference, instead of exacerbating it.
Kamal grows up
My pleas worked for a while. At the same time, Twitter was automating such processes. Twitter “support” went from actual human interlocutors with names that I could appeal to, to purely algorithmic missives stating emphatically that the account was suspended. During this phase, I was forced to delete certain retweets which I imagine the poster found to be embarrassing now that they were “on the record”. The account moved into its final “mature” phase, taking on pretty much any intolerance that can be imagined, replying using an economic and political framework, and avoiding useless defensive postures of identity politics.
The focus was instead on current dominant modes/varieties of capitalism and fascist nationalisms—Calvinist, Zionist, Wahhabist, etc. These tend to overlap and echo each other: The hatred for the Arab/South Asian/Muslim within Calvinist capitalism is completely echoed in the hasbara hatred doctrinal to Zionist apartheid and the capitalism it attempts to prop up, as well as within the intolerant and sectarian practices of a Wahhabi capitalism that produces nothing but death and destruction in the Southwest Asian region. Minor versions would include India and its nationalist-Hindu conception of the nation-state, Turkey and its ideas of the same directed at its minorities, Lebanon and political parties which emulate European fascists (not who you think), etc. The list, sadly, is endless.
I focused on the antidote to this: liberation movements past and present, pan–nation-state thinking, communal and collective engagement, etc. Two quotes used in Kamal’s profile and as a pinned tweet reflected this sentiment. The first is a reference to the Qur’an. It is a paraphrase of Gamal Abdul-Nasser’s speech concerning the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Here he admonishes the former colonial powers to “perish in [their] rage!” Their war against him was also a war against the Algerian resistance, a champing-at-the-bit secondary Crusade, this time directed against progressive forces trying to break out of from under the colonial yoke.
The second comes from the hadith literature, and states:
It is narrated by Ibn Abbas that The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him sent Mu’adh ibn Jabal to Yemen and said to him: “Beware of the supplication of the oppressed, for there is no barrier between it and Allah.” —Sahih al-Bukhari: Number 4090
At full-tilt, Kamal Shaqi was posting about 5,000 tweets a month. In the months before it was definitively shut down, we got our 1,000th follower. The mix of newsfeed, solid framework, and topical searches obviously struck a chord, and the bot hit its stride. Honestly, I was taken aback when the final curtain was brought down on the account. Appeals were categorically refused. Looking at Twitter today is, as its CEO attests, a kind of snapshot of the world. But it is a very class-biased snapshot, one that he games with his preferential algorithms and account purges. I believe Kamal’s focus on Palestine was the last straw: The final shutdown came after I added about a half dozen newsfeeds of various Palestinian news organizations in a variety of languages.
Re-examining the avatars of those Kamal was engaging with at the time, many of them have been shut down as well. One of them, @Patriot_MM, on the contrary, has gained 2,000 followers in that time; another, @gill_merman, is still quite active. I resent being lumped in with this truly hateful discourse which Twitter sees fit to let flourish. @YesYoureRacist, as much as I admire it as an account, now appears to be a useful facade for Twitter to claim some kind of high-handed moral stance. Calling out racism without tying it to economic and political realities is toothless, however. But such is the state of affairs in the United States (and much of the planet) today. Kamal Shaqi joins many other voices for change in the dust heap of Silicon Valley’s dystopian online realm.
A False Democracy
There are additional aspects of Kamal Shaqi that I believe led to its being shut down. First, an expansive Islam that didn’t fit current sectarian and secular narratives of the dominant discourse. Second, a radical pro-Palestinian stance based in economic and political frameworks that have always been historically threatening to dominant elites in settler colonial nation-states. Expanding on this, I will conclude by quoting from a conference proposal I submitted to the Arab-US Association for Communication Educators (AUSACE) Conference at the American University of Beirut in 2010 entitled “Digital Media: A False Democracy”. I wrote:
Recent events show that such reliance [on corporate networks] is a potential Achilles’ heel for any web site that works toward resistance, or that is on the margins of the dominant discourse. When the powers that be set to shutting down the Wikileaks web site, and when the Al-Akhbar web site was hacked and thus silenced for a month, it was quickly revealed that the so-called “virtual freedom” of the Internet was instead a tightly controlled infrastructure involving means of communication, access, hardware, and software, all dangerously out of the direct control of their users. Current pushes into offsite blogging, “cloud” computing, and remote databanks all reveal this trend toward the consolidation of data and information—and thus the inherent value of this information—as well as the ease in which any dissent can be quickly stifled and shut down based on political, economic, and market-based decisions.
This corporate or governmental control of the medium extends to computer platforms, hardware, software, phone networks, etc. Avoidance of this market-based control of information infrastructures is not a new venture, and the various efforts at creating public access and public domain hardware and software attest to this. Unfortunately, this often means a huge learning curve in order to understand as well as keep up with the underlying technologies. Arguments that claim interactivity as concerns the web ignore public-access and pirate television and radio, for example; any medium is easily democratized simply by providing the means and access to use it. Requests [to our artists’ collective] during the “Arab Spring” from Egypt and Gaza for how-to advice concerning simple, two-way ham radio communications after telecommunications infrastructures were shut down bear potent testament to these words, and point to a future re-integration of what were formerly considered outdated media technologies.
To this end, we are proposing a return to basics—basic applications, protocols, file systems, etc., but also a simultaneous and exponential reawakening of all media considered “dead”, “dying”, or simply forgotten. The key to empowerment is not within a paradigm of corporate or government control, but in instructing and educating users in the creation of systems that reflect and extend their reality, not replace it, emulate it, or attempt to surpass it. The key to enabling Voice is in providing means and methods of building models and communication systems that are user controlled, disseminated, and free to administer and use. The key to “democracy” in terms of the virtual realm is not by forcing users into conscripted and constricted “spaces”, but by allowing their true freedom—by moving from virtual paint and pigment to virtual finger painting, with all of its fluidity, with all of its mess, and with all of its true expression.
Heeding my own advice, I’ve shut down my personal Twitter and Instagram accounts. I’m reviving my own hacker forays into explorations of networking devices, taking into account those parts of the world with unreliable phone and electricity infrastructures. This is also based on solid software from the past decades that has been tabled for not being Jetsons/Wired–sexy and new. Social media giants today, inverting notions of popular analog media, survive based on a small sliver of the populace, a class of people with the luxury and privilege to not have their voices silenced. To be sure, this is a dismal audience to seek attention from. The short but active life of Kamal Shaqi remains a sign to get back to networking in the real world, with the online realm being a shadow representation of this praxis instead of a stand-in for such activism. And so a new call to arms: “Unplug!” Because “being unplugged” is no longer in our own control.