Please list all the tweets you regret not posting
Plus AI translation is filling the web with junk, apparently
The other day the Times writer Hugo Rifkind was on the Oh God What Now podcast, and somehow or other the topic moved on to the question of Twitter (yeah I’m still calling it that). It comes at about 19’30” into the episode, when Ros Taylor notes how she felt a little embarrassed at having retweeted a somewhat misleading clip put out by Sky News, of Rishi Sunak talking to a woman about the NHS.
Over to Rifkind, who offered his view on what one should do in such situations: “It’s a good rule of thumb that every time you want to tweet something: Don’t. And you’ll never look back and go—well, you’ll very rarely look back and go ‘I wish I’d tweeted that’. Whereas you’ll very often be glad you didn’t.”
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This axiom is relearnt again and again by people the world over; usually it happens when they have aged somewhat from the years when they wrote those tweets (see, that’s why we can still call them tweets) and find themselves in a job or position where suddenly the freedom of expression and eager audience they treasured in their youth seem less attractive than just having kept their virtual mouth shut.
Sometimes, though, it happens with people who you really think should know better. And I was fascinated by the contents of an employment tribunal judgment that came out earlier this week, in which a professor who had worked at the Open University (OU) took up a case claiming that as an employer the university had failed to protect her from harassment and discrimination over her beliefs by colleagues.
The judgment (that’s a 155-page PDF) is pretty amazing reading. A lot of it reminded me of Sayre’s Law, which I quote twice in Social Warming, where he said of internal politics at universities that “the reason they’re so vicious is because the stakes are so small.” The players are Jo Phoenix, a lesbian professor of criminology whose particular area of study is prisons, and
The potential complaints are listed on page 9 to 14 of the judgment. They include questions to be answered such as whether Professor Louise Westmarland compared Professor Phoenix to a “racist uncle at the Christmas dinner table” in a face-to-face conversation, whether some of Phoenix’s colleagues instigated and then published publicly a Google Doc criticising Phoenix, the OU’s Sociology Department (more precisely, some unnamed person there) retweeted an insulting tweet from the LSE aimed at Phoenix, and the question of whether various colleagues tweeted or retweeted unpleasant stuff aimed at Phoenix.
Phoenix’s problem was to be “gender critical” (while also trans supportive): this is defined in the judgment as
“The Claimant believes that biological sex is real, that it is important, that a person cannot change their biological sex, and that sex is not to be conflated with gender identity. We had no doubt, and it is our finding that the Claimant genuinely holds this belief and has done so for all of her adult life.”
The trouble for Phoenix started in October 2018 when she and 53 other academics co-signed a letter to The Guardian, which expressed concern about proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, and also complained
Members of our group [of about 100 academics] have experienced campus protests, calls for dismissal in the press, harassment, foiled plots to bring about dismissal, no-platforming, and attempts to censor academic research and publications. Such attacks are out of line with the ordinary reception of critical ideas in the academy, where it is normally accepted that disagreement is reasonable and even productive.
Unfortunately for Phoenix, two days earlier one of her colleagues, Dr Downes, had sent out an internal email asking for lots of support for the proposed GRA changes. Within Phoenix’s peer group at the university, “gender critical” ideas were, it’s safe to say, not popular. So when the open letter to the Guardian was published, Phoenix was in the virtual doghouse.
For the next three years, Phoenix had an uncomfortable time at work, and from reading the judgment, quite a few of her colleagues thought she entirely deserved it. They were from what the judgment describes as the “gender affirmative” culture: they didn’t agree with Phoenix’s position at all, and saw her as wanting to dismantle trans rights (even though Phoenix had said publicly that she supported trans rights) and described her, behind her back, as transphobic.
At this point of course you’d want to pause and think: how much does it actually matter what one of your colleagues thinks? In an academic atmosphere you’d perhaps think that these researchers with opposing views might find some way to come to an accommodation. If someone is a criminologist, you’d hope they’re going to work off the data, rather than starting from a belief and looking for data to support their view.
But no, that didn’t happen. What did happen was that the academics used all sorts of media to express their implicit dislike of Phoenix’s position. And what I find most astonishing is that they took to Twitter to do it.
Look, criticising colleagues publicly is a tricky thing at the best of times. And these weren’t the best of times: at the time Phoenix’s colleagues were taking to Twitter to retweet and compose their own tweets about this, an employment tribunal had just ruled in June 2021 on what’s known as the Forstater case, where another gender critical woman had won her case over the right to hold her beliefs.
And how often, seriously, do you see people from the same organisation take to Twitter to take lumps out of each other? It’s incredibly rare—unless, of course, you’re in academia, when people seem to think that contributing to a light pile-on is a good way to pep up a quiet weekday.
So it is that when the judgment considers (from para 654) a number of tweets that various of Phoenix’s colleages had either written or retweeted, an amazing 9 out of 11 qualify either as “unwanted conduct” or “harassment” or similar. Leigh Downes, who was and is also in the criminology department, features quite a few times, with one finding being that
This retweet by Dr Downes was unwanted conduct that related to gender critical beliefs. The purpose of the retweet was to create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the Claimant
If you look at Dr Downes’s OU profile, you can see why there might be a clash with Professor Phoenix’s views. Inter alia, Downes’s current research includes
Trans prisoner experience and gender incongruence in prison regimes in England and Wales1: I am writing up research conducted at one men's prison with Dr. Abi Rowe based on interviews with 7 trans and non-binary prisoners, 3 cisgender prisoners and 7 cisgender prison staff members to explore how social processes, responses and reactions shape the lived experiences of trans prisoners.
But here’s the social warming thing. Downes didn’t like Phoenix’s views. Where’s the place to air that? Where’s the place to discuss it? Not on Twitter. Why? Because people will screenshot them, and the Internet Archive will capture them, and if you’re harassing a colleague then it’s entirely possible that the colleague will use them against you, and you won’t be able to say “who, me?”
But Downes clearly felt that the place to corral support and to feel supported was the public space: Twitter and the warm bath of the echo chamber where you can easily find people who agree with you and will tell you that you’re correct, which is so different from your workspace where there’s that vile person down the hall.
Downes’s tweets and retweets thus fed into the finding that the OU had failed to do what it should. Paragraph 687 upholds Phoenix’s claim of “breach of trust and confidence” she had a right to expect from the OU:
We consider that the conduct of the Respondent’s [OU] employees by contributing, signing and publishing the Open Letter [on Google Docs], WELS/RSSH2 Statement, publishing harassing tweets amounts collectively and individually to a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence.
Note how it’s the conduct of the OU employees which creates the breach, and that their tweets and retweets are part of it. I’d imagine that after the judgment was published, the HR people at the OU might have asked Dr Downes if there might be a timeslot in their calendar for a little chat, perhaps quite soon, just to talk about social media use?
You might not be surprised to hear that Dr Downes has deleted that Twitter account. Though of course that doesn’t mean the tweets have gone away. No, not in the least. The deletion decision seems to have been made some time after September 2022, as that’s the last recorded tweet via the Internet Archive.
What’s the lesson? It’s the one up the top: “every time you want to tweet something: Don’t. And you’ll never look back and go—well, you’ll very rarely look back and go ‘I wish I’d tweeted that’. Whereas you’ll very often be glad you didn’t.” I draft and then delete tweets without posting them all the time, and given the choice I’ll probably opt for retweeting something showing a happy dog. (Not always. I am nowhere near that level of self-control.)
But look, at least I’ve never been cited in an employment tribunal as having contributed to the harassment of an employee.
Yet, I guess.
Glimpses of the AI tsunami
• What the algorithm does to young girls. This could be a social warming topic in its own right, but this is a great read by Freya India about how girls who get too obsessed with Instagram can find themselves adopting the same look, the same everything.
• 57% of the non-English internet is AI-generated junk via machine learning. Faint concern: the paper this is based on isn’t peer-reviewed.
• Weirdly, there doesn’t seem to be much of this stuff this week. Perhaps all the companies are too busy firing people! Anyway, we’ll see what next week brings.
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(deep breath) the Reproduction, Sexualities and Sexual Health group of the faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies, which published a statement on its website saying that the existence of a new OU research network—the Gender Critical Research Network (GCRN)—set up by Phoenix “runs directly counter to the values of our most valuable research collaborators in the areas of gender and health, who are committed to trans health and serving the needs of trans people”. In essence, it was suggesting the GCRN should be shut down.