In October last year, David Amess, a British politician, was murdered by a terrorist. British politicians felt an overwhelming urge to react but, for obvious reasons, did not seek to dwell on the terrorist’s motivations. Instead, they proposed ‘David’s Law’ which would ban internet anonymity and thereby help protect public figures from online abuse. Although tenuously related to the facts of Amess’s murder, banning online anonymity is an attractive idea — trolls are likely to post less abuse if they can be identified.
On 16 May, I will be speaking alongside maths teaching phenomenon Eddie Woo at an event organised by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). The title of the event is, ‘Ensuring Australia’s Maths Teaching Adds Up To Success”. As I understand it, other speakers have been invited but only Eddie and I have confirmed at this stage.
When the CIS published a promotional tweet, Rhea Liang, a surgeon from Queensland, took issue with the line-up and included the hashtags #manel and #DiversityAndInclusion in order to draw in other comments.
Setting aside the interesting question of how anyone with a contemporary understanding of gender could determine that all speakers were men, I felt this to be an intrusive and (passive) aggressive attempt by someone outside the field to use this event to pursue their own agenda.
Soon, other comments came, including someone posting a list of women mathematicians and asking why none of them were invited. Note that these were mathematicians and not maths teachers — it’s perhaps easy to confuse the two if you don’t know what you’re on about. I reacted.
This was my final and only tweet in this conversation and as a result of it, I have now been mobbed for two days.
Let me be clear: I have opinions about panels. I am the first to complain if a panel on education has no teachers on it. And I think diversity is something we should strive for. However, rigorously balancing up every panel in every way possible is the wrong priority. Sometimes, the most relevant speakers on a topic may be all men or all women or all from South Asia or all Gay. At the recent Age Schools Summit, every panel was meticulously balanced and this appeared to result in some speakers not knowing much about the subject they were speaking about.
I interpret an intervention on the make-up of this education event from a well-remunerated, privileged surgeon as performative — an attempt to gain status.
Have I perhaps overreacted? I don’t think so. To generate momentum, Liang posted a series of tweets about me.
This resulted in a stream of mentions in my timeline. These were from a mix of medics and randoms who I assume were attracted by the hashtags.
I have a planned approach in these situations. Once it becomes clear that I am the target of a mob, I block everyone involved, no matter how minor their involvement. In this case, it did not get past this stage, but if the rate at which hostile comments appear in my timeline approaches the rate at which I can block, I will lock my account.
Inevitably, blocking people became another point to complain about. I had shown no ability to reflect on my comments etc.
What does any of this have to do with internet anonymity? Well, perhaps inevitably, one of the trolls stirred-up by Liang decided to complain about me to my employer — remember all I wrote was that single tweet above.
The tweeter, @Sonia_Murphy also posted a school email address and encouraged others to complain.
This is highly embarrassing for me and I feel like a nuisance to my employer. It is an attempt at economic intimidation. If governments decide to ban internet anonymity then those who are in insecure positions and not supported by their employers will be exposed to bad faith actors doxxing them in this way.
Did Liang condemn this move? Not as far as I can see. Instead, after highlighting this appalling behaviour, a person defending me on Twitter was accused of trying to start a pile-on against @Sonia_Murphy.
All tactics are acceptable if you have virtue on your side, it seems.