The Unreliability of the Whisper Network
Having been a victim of the Twitter Shame Mob and knowing what it is like to be chased across the virtual landscape of the internet by an outraged group of crazies hefting their pitchforks and torches, I wanted to touch on what I believe to be the main and inherent flaw of this form of internet activism, and that is how it’s based on a grievous and perilous perversion of the truth. The people involved in these gang-shaming activities do not rely on factual information. Instead they rely on what they refer to as their “whisper network.” This is information that is shared between individuals on a secretive basis, and then networked out between them through private dialogues that no one else gets access to. They say they do this to protect the original sources of the information, but what ends up happening is the accusations become more and more exaggerated, and the original subtext or context gets lost in transition, until all that remains is outlandish and scandalous accusations that spread like wildfire through the Twittersphere and elsewhere.
Anyone who has ever played the game Telephone as a child knows exactly what I am talking about. You don’t even have to have played the game to know the basic concept of it, and how it works. Someone whispers something in another person’s ear and tells them to pass it on. It could be something as simple as, “Billy thinks Susie is cute.” But by the time it has been passed on by twenty to forty people, the message that is spread by the fortieth person is completely different, having morphed into something that could be as outlandish as, “Billy put his tongue in Susie’s butt.” As a game played by children this is funny, but when rumors and gossip or serious conversations are spread this way by adults, the results are quite unnerving. And this is why the Whisper Network fails and should not be trusted.
I have personally witnessed the horrific effect this type of information sharing has had on others and have witnessed its effects on a personal level. Having differences of opinion on hot-button discussions quickly had me labeled “asshole,” and then “troll,” and then “misogynist, sexist, racist,” and then “serial harasser.” All of course bullshit, but on the internet people use these labels in an effort to delegitimize their perceived opponents and to silence them. The heavy-handedness and weight these labels carry make them nearly impossible to combat, because they are loaded with such vitriol and disgust, a person finds themselves immediately trying to disprove the label placed on them, rather than being able to stay on the original topic. As such, throwing one of these labels at someone is the ultimate distraction from a contested topic, especially if it is a topic of debate that is un-winnable.
This was most recently apparent in glaring fashion with another internet outrage fallout that took place over an acquaintance of mine, Rachel Custer, having the Twitter Shame Mob go after her and get her work removed from two separate journals. When I defended her, this time, the editor of one of these journals went so far as to call me “Everyone’s favorite rapist.” This was clearly a distraction tactic, and it worked to a degree, because I was so incensed over being called a rapist, that I focused on trying to get that accusation taken down from facebook/twitter for several days after it happened. And despite this outlandish term being hoisted upon my name, not one of the proponents of the Twitter Mob and protectors of the “Literary Safe Spaces” stepped in to condemn the editor for their obvious misstep by slandering me with such a falsehood, despite none of these people ever setting foot in the same room with me, having no knowledge of me whatsoever other than a petty literary feud and some occasional mudslinging. The excuse I got from one Mob Member on this was, “Well, I don’t know you aren’t one.” This is another extension of how the Whisper Network version of Telephone works to distort perception. Since the editor making the statement, Topaz Winters, was an 18 year old POC, I was supposed to just not say anything about it, and to demand an apology and a retraction from her was somehow supposed to be bullying, despite the extreme nature of the slanderous term she attached to my name.
This is all a game to these people. And why not? No one gives a fuck about poetry except poets.
What had I done this time to deserve their vitriol? I had defended another writer. Rachel Custer is another writer who has been wrongly vilified by the Twitter Mob, in much the same fashion as I have. It’s the same group of people who repeatedly go after writers such as her every time their work gets published somewhere. It’s like a group of mad ravens that start dancing and cawing every time a worm pops its way out of the ground for a peek at the sunlight, and they all start fighting over which bird is going to gobble up the worm until it decides to go back into hiding and leave them back at their starvation unto cannibalism ritual. As far as I can tell, Rachel has done nothing to any of these people that deserves such hatred. Much like me, her encounters with this group of indie publishing Nazi hacks have all occurred online, in much the same fashion. She friended fellow writers on facebook. She had arguments with writers over issues like politics, police brutality, immigration, the presidential election, etc. Her beliefs are different from a lot of poets in that she is an evangelical Christian and a conservative. So naturally, her ideas about some topics like, abortion, healthcare, feminism, they are going to be leaning in a slightly to more moderately different direction, and this caused conflict. Her ideas about police brutality for instance, which was a hot button issue after the Ferguson riots and other similar situations at the time, had her defending the police force while everyone else was saying “fuck the police.” I remember clearly that many folks were calling her a racist for her views. And it got so old to her she started sarcastically replying, “So what,” or “I’m not even arguing with you about this, you want me to be a racist, fine, I’m racist.” This was clearly her way of trying to point out that calling someone a racist over a difference of opinion about a complicated topic was a copout, a way of getting frustrated and ending the argument, taking the ball and running away from the game instead of trying to finish it. It’s simply self-defeating and polarizing rather than working toward any kind of common ground.
The other BIG problem people have with Rachel Custer is that she supports Donald Trump. I can’t defend that stance because I don’t understand it at all, but politics is a complicated arena and people have many different reasons for supporting the candidate they choose to support. Not everyone is a single issue voter, though many people are. Personally, I don’t see how anyone can still support Trump given everything that has happened since he took office, but there is a lot of misinformation spread, and many people buy into it rather than try and own up to the truth. At any rate, Rachel wrote a poem that got published in Rattle that supported Trump, and basically the internet mob lost their fucking shit over it. It was like the culmination of three big taboos in one atomic bomb explosion of an event. You had Rattle, already hated. Rachel, already hated. Trump, very hated. A perfect storm of social outrage. An unprecedented VIOLATION of the literary safe space! It was unconscionable. It was an OUTRAGE. The Twitter Mob has never forgiven it.
There was also the big blow up around this time of Rachel getting kicked out of the secret Facebook group, the Binders of Women and Nonbinary Poets. See how complicated all this is? It’s like layer upon layer of high school cafeteria cliques, a metaphysical onion of seedy gossip and nepotism and self-righteous corruption. It just goes and goes and goes.
I don’t want to go to much into the Binders of Women and Nonbinary Poets, but it is the source of the Literary Gestapo’s power. It’s a facebook group of something like 20,000 women where they have networked and share opportunities and spread these stories of gossip and outrage so that it only takes a few hours for one of these posts about an event that they disagree with to go viral and have a veritable mob of angry keyboard warriors rioting to take down the poet who dared infringe upon anyone’s perception of safety. The admins of this group are E. Kristin Anderson and Kenzie Allen, and they have strict policies in place about keeping their work and their discussions in this group secret. No screen shots. No taking anything said in the comments of the posts or the posts themselves public. The only time any of this abuse of power was ever tried to be taken public was when the editor of Thank You For Swallowing, Cat Conway, started an anonymous Twitter page called @problematicpubs. On this page she had a list of everyone she considered to be problematic for whatever reason. I was on the list. As was Rachel. As was several other people and magazines like Rattle and B O D Y. Also on the list were actual people accused of actual sexual assault. There seemed to be no real metrics by which one was considered to be problematic. The violations ranged from being accused of being an actual rapist, to simply being an argumentative troll in facebook threads. The list had no real legitimacy, but people in the Binders believed it and added all the people to their personal “do not publish” lists for their magazines that they ran, and they told other people not to publish the perpetrators on the list. Eventually there was conflict over this Twitter feed, because obviously it promoted censorship, and it attacked people who had not really done anything wrong. The page was eventually taken down, but now you have Cat Conway once again posting threads of lists of “problematic” people and publications on Twitter, and you have things like Vida forcing publications to take their “Safer Lit Pledge” much like they force their vision of diversity through the publications of their pie charts every year.
And now, all this feels like it is reaching a point of peak hysteria. Luckily, amid all this insanity, one of the journals who removed Rachel’s work apologized to her and had it reinstated to their online archive. That journal was from OSU, and being a publicly funded university, it actually has to abide by federal discrimination law, so it could not just remove someone’s work due to their political beliefs, unlike the other journal being run by an 18 year old child. So, where does this all end exactly? I feel like we must be coming to a fork in the road where important decisions about the future of the literary landscape will need to be made. Either writers and poets will need to take a stand for TRUE FREEDOM of expression, or they will decide to do nothing and succumb to the will of a few very outspoken bullies, preaching from their pulpits of conformity. If we do nothing, I wonder just how far we can slide down this slippery slope of fascist thought-policing in art. The political landscape has certainly shown us how easy it is to let things slide past points of no return. Much like our politics, if we keep allowing the bullies to decide the rules of the game, it won’t be long until the game is rigged for just the bullies to keep winning time after time, and freedom of expression in the arts starts disappearing from even our memories, as surely the canon and any offensive work made by any problematic human will be stricken from the history books and the collective human consciousness, leaving us with only what is approved for consumption, what is safe, what is sterile, what is trigger-free, where nothing hurts and everyone is happy, or at least convinced they are in their emotionless world. Ask yourself if that’s the future you want to live to see.