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On Edu-Twitter Witch Hunts

January 5, 2018

Three weeks ago a couple of people (who I would call “trolls”, but who would no doubt see themselves as perfectly justified in all the abuse they’ve posted over the years) started sharing my blogposts from 8 or 9 years ago, alongside their interpretations of what I meant. It started with the idea that to criticise opposition to exclusions or SEN policy, even SEN policies that have now been abandoned, was to “attack” children with SEND. Details of that issue can be found in this post children are human beings, not labels, but the fuss moved on to other thought-crimes, such as being insufficiently dogmatic in my opposition to corporal punishment. I got loads of abuse from people who accepted those interpretations, particularly parents of children with SEND, who believed that I was attacking their child. Plus there were huge threads where people just agreed I was a terrible human being, and expressed their shock at anybody who wouldn’t take their word for it.

I am very grateful for what then happened. Lots of people on edu-twitter stepped in and said “Andrew’s okay” or “that post doesn’t mean that” or just “I remember what was happening back then, this post got it right”. I am very grateful to everybody who did that. I suppose I could be smug that, even with all those years of blogging, even when I was writing anonymously about some of the darkest times in my life, I don’t recall writing anything I was ashamed of, and for all the fury of the trolls, I’m not actually enough of a hate figure for stuff like that to really take off. But I know these kind of campaigns have in the past grown into full-blown witch hunts (and done people significant harm) and I want to reflect on this.

I’ve written a couple of posts about witch hunts on social media:

I use “witch hunt” to describe any series of accusations against an individual or group of individuals in which they are given no fair opportunity to defend themselves. These occur when the quantity of social media activity, the speed at which new arguments are introduced or the level of personal abuse against the target (or those defending them) are great enough to deny anyone a fair opportunity to respond. The situation can usually be identified by the amount of abuse, the effort people put into finding new things to accuse the target of, the willingness of people to repeat accusations regardless of accuracy or fairness (often making really tenuous arguments to explain why, apparently discredited accusations can still be repeated) and “accusation shift”, i.e. responding to criticism of one accusation by making a new accusation. Often the intention of those making or sharing accusations is not to get at the truth but to publicly shame, something you can read about in Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Over the life cycle of a witch hunt, arguments will tend towards:

  1. Guilt by association. People are condemned for defending the witch hunt’s target, even against false accusations. Yesterday I was accused of “complicity in misogyny” for defending somebody who was subsequently accused of sending sexist tweets. Also yesterday, a school was attacked for having been praised by the target of that witch hunt.
  2. Revision of the narrative of the witch hunt. There is often complete amnesia about what prompted the witch hunt, and the order in which accusations emerge. People will justify the witch hunt on the basis of whatever accusations have stuck, or been proved correct, and forget that it started with other, often discredited, accusations, or perhaps just a campaign of abuse, which may now have been forgotten.
  3. Revenge. If the target is not destroyed, the witch hunters lash out at anyone who challenged the witch hunt or even those who just refused to join in.

“I’d just like you to answer some valid criticisms”

I’ve written the greatest quantity of posts about school shamings: witch hunts that focus on a school rather than a person. Generally my opposition to school shamings has been well received with little criticism except from those trolls who conduct long-term campaigns against named schools, and people who will compulsively disagree with me. I’ve had a certain amount of support for condemning witch hunts against individuals in education, particularly teachers or people who have made a positive contribution to education social media. I’ve had absolutely no effect when people go for politicians or political commentators. Twitter politics is largely a pantomime, inhabited by people who divide the world into goodies and baddies, and genuinely seem to believe that booing the baddies will change the world. In that environment, witch hunting behaviour is just seen as what you do.

On edu-twitter, I don’t think the battle has yet been lost. I think most people are decent and professional, but I do think a lot of people find it hard to understand why some of us object to all witch hunts, rather than just those against more sympathetic targets. I will challenge false accusations on principle. I will ask people joining in a Twitter witch hunt: “do you really know what you are doing?”. I will try to challenge those inciting abuse against people, even if those people may seem like the villains of the piece.

It is very difficult to argue against a witch hunt, as Jon Ronson describes in his book, the fact that “the snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche”. No matter how odious a hate campaign is, individuals feel their own contribution was simply “asking questions” or “making valid criticisms” and anyone pointing out the witch hunt is trying to obstruct that. Even when they don’t disassociate themselves from the other people attacking the same target, people will endlessly argue over what the correct definition of a “witch hunt” is or they will argue that, however bad the campaign against somebody is, ultimately the target deserved it.

My position on any ongoing witch hunt will be this:

If you make an accusation, I will expect you to have evidence for it, for there to be no distortion, and I will condemn you if you spread lies or gossip or abuse. And even if the accusation is true, I will still feel no obligation to join in. I will not make that conditional on any wider narrative of whether the target is a goody or baddie; Labour or Tory; traditionalist or progressive; writing in the Guardian or the Daily Mail (or Spiked) or anything else, because I don’t care whether the target “has it coming” or not. Nobody can make a fair judgement about that when joining an enraged mob. It is not necessary to join in a witch hunt in order to challenge actions, arguments or opinions. Save your valid criticisms, or important questions, until after the fuss has died down. If you would not make an argument or express disapproval without an enraged mob to back you up, then it’s probably not worth doing so. Trying to destroy people on social media is bad for debate, bad for free speech and sets a really bad example of how to use social media. Let’s see if edu-twitter can rise above that.

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5 comments

  1. “Yesterday I was accused of “complicity in misogyny” for defending somebody who was subsequently accused of sending sexist tweets.” Correction: The accusations about the sexist tweets had been all over the media for the preceding three days. As had screenshots of the sexist tweets. That many people had been aware of since they had been posted originally.

    It’s possible you missed them, but the sexist tweet references certainly weren’t subsequent to the accusation of complicity in misogyny.


    • The accusation about me was made around 9 pm on the 3rd of January and the appointment that prompted the witch hunt was on the 1st of January, so something is seriously wrong with your timeline.

      I first dared “defend” the target of the witch hunt before 10 am on the 1st of January. Were those tweets being shared before then? I don’t think I saw them until the 3rd.


  2. As I said, you might not have seen them. I saw many between the small hours of 1 Jan and when the ‘accusatory’ tweet was posted late on 3rd. That’s almost 72 hours. I didn’t see it until Jan 4 and you refer to it in your blogpost as ‘yesterday’ so my timeline isn’t that far wrong.

    I don’t know how you managed to miss the objections to the sexist tweets when they were first made.


    • “I saw many between the small hours of 1 Jan and when the ‘accusatory’ tweet was posted late on 3rd”

      I didn’t. And it didn’t seem to make any of the press coverage I saw before the third.

      “I don’t know how you managed to miss the objections to the sexist tweets when they were first made”

      2009? Who was even on Twitter in 2009?


  3. For what it’s worth, I would be pleased to offer help should you ever feel the need. While my reach on Twitter (@istampoutignorance) isn’t much it’s one more voice.



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