Why I don’t agree with trigger warnings

When I was suffering from PTSD, I didn't want to be wrapped in cotton wool.

Twitter is no longer a "safe space". It has become a vehicle for outrage, to the point where many no longer choose to express themselves at all, or do so skittishly through a network of private messages. Following the furores of the last couple of weeks, Suzanne Moore has put a trigger warning on her Twitter bio, a disclaimer as if to say "will cause offence". That, and her joking about the terminology with Julie Bindel, caused yet more disapproval from some corners of the social network. A trigger warning is not something to joke about. Trauma is not something to joke about. Trigger warning: this next tweet contains a flippant remark about trigger warnings.

For those not au fait with the terminology of the small corner of the internet that makes up feminist websites and message boards, a "trigger warning" initially existed to warn survivors of violence and rape, or those suffering from eating disorders, that an article or blog post may contain language that might "trigger" traumatic memories, thus causing flashbacks, panic attacks, or distress. A worthy goal, although also of limited use, as I’ll go on to explain. However, in recent years the phrase seems to have become shorthand for "anything you may not like", and to many has taken on the unpleasant connotation of providing a means for the oversensitive internet language police to vet content – some would argue.

As Moore was. I have PTSD, but I did not find her or Bindel’s jokes particularly upsetting. I would rather inhabit a Twitter where people feel able to have a laugh, thereby taking the risk that it may upset me, than a strangely sanitised social network where people check their "privilege" at the door like a fur coat (no knickers), with no dance floor, no booze and no fun awaiting them- just a vast, pompous expanse of skittish hacks dealing in whispered platitudes. No, thanks, that’s not for me. In the aftermath of the traumatic experience I suffered, I avoided internet feminism completely. Not because of "triggering" content, but because I wanted to go it alone. I did not want their "safe spaces" and their trigger warnings and their "calling out" of sexism. I did not want any of them as an "ally". It seemed, to me, so very American. I’d take the NHS. Good old Nye Bevan and an hour a week in a room with a stranger and a box of tissues. Reliving it all. Over and over, again and again.

Before I continue; a disclaimer. In explaining my choices, I am not condemning those of others. This is important. I have no doubt that internet support groups and feminist websites have helped many women suffering from PTSD, that the ability to share stories and testimonies and to weep has helped many to heal. But, in the aftermath, it is not what I wanted. Trauma is a strange beast. It binds people together, like twine. And especially women. You see it online all the time. The lifelong friendships formed across the ether, the complicity, the shared lingo, and yes: the anger at men. I felt it too, which is partly why I didn’t want their anger. My own was toxic enough.

It is rarely said, but post-traumatic stress disorder can turn you into a horrible person. I found its old name "shell shock", strangely fitting. Not because I had ever seen action – the poems of Wilfred Owen do not count – but because that was how I felt. Like a soft, gelatinous, wobbly little thing surrounded by a hard shell of fury. And instead of seeking out others in the same position, I stayed crouched inside, pink and seething.

I’ll admit something else that will perhaps be unpopular: those message-boards, those websites, smacked to me of victimhood. I didn’t want to be a delicate little flower who could be brought to tears by a paragraph. I already felt a keen sense of injustice, not helped by the terminology: "Camden & Islington Victim Support", "if you have been a victim of crime…" and so I never heeded trigger warnings on the internet. Not once. The contrary: I forced potentially upsetting scenarios down my throat.

Triggers can spring from anywhere. Revisiting a place, or even getting a sense of it. The odd gait of a stranger in the street; a passing resemblance; a certain time of night. For me it was depictions of hanging or strangulation. You never realise how common they are until they become so laden with horror. The frequency that they appear in works of literature (at one point it felt like every novel I read had a hanging in it), in films, in television programmes. Should they have had a trigger warning? Impossible. I had to - must - inhabit the real world. There was only so many times that I could take the long way round, that I could not go out at night. My therapist used the analogy of a factory conveyor belt to describe traumatic memory. There I was, pushing all the boxes off- toppling them one by one, before they could even hope to be processed. I blinkered myself from the reality of events. I ran from them.

All of us, at one point or another, make a choice regarding what we will and will not expose ourselves to. For that reason, while studying Primo Levi and the literature of the Second World War at university, I chose not to google "medical experiments of Dr Josef Mengele". It’s the same reason for which television news broadcasts are often preceded with the words "this contains scenes some viewers may find upsetting" – so that you can make the choice to switch off. Equally, one makes the choice to be outraged. Some viewers may find this offensive. Some. Not all. Most will be unfazed. But not all.

With triggers, one does not make the choice to have a flashback, or a panic attack, or to collapse in tears at work and have your day ruined by a random reference in an internet post. Equally, as Suzanne Moore pointed out, a soldier can have a flashback because of a curtain moving in the breeze. To have text alerting you to the possibility of a trigger is a privilege unknown to most PTSD sufferers. The world is full of triggers. You could, I suppose, try to liken a trigger warning to informing epileptics that there is some strobe lighting coming up. Except it’s not that simple. I remember my grandfather telling me how one man’s seizure had been set off by the light flickering between the trees as he drove. Similarly, that specific depiction of violence on the internet might be your light between the trees, but it isn’t mine.

Of course no one is suggesting that we stop reporting the news. I don’t think, like some, that trigger warnings hinder freedom of speech. But they do display an increasingly nannying approach to language that is being used to shut down discourse and to silence. Often, it is coupled with a sense of passive aggressive glee ("um. You should have put a trigger warning on that"). I do not doubt that they are of enormous service to survivors with specific triggers likely to reoccur on feminist websites, but it has got to a point now where I feel women I have never met are trying to wrap me in cotton wool, and I detest that. PTSD can make you hypersensitive and hyper-aware – not qualities I see as desirable in a writer or an editor whose job is to produce words for the general population. Whether a survivor personally feels ready to stop toppling the boxes is their choice and only their choice. Some never will; the trauma is too profound to ever process. But there are some survivors who are trying to open their boxes, and a trigger warning can serve as an admonition to stay in our shells. I wanted out of mine.

A trigger can be anything - one man’s seizure was set off by the light flickering between the trees as he drove. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

Getty
Show Hide image

Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.