Unreliable Narrators

On March 24th, 2021, SNP MP John Nicolson recounted the story of being abused by an organisation he has repeatedly described as “sinister”, “far-right” and a “hate group” with “dodgy funders”. The transcript of the video is below:

I've had a wee taste of it myself recently. I praised, online, a young trans constituent of mine last year who had bravely spoken of her life in a BBC documentary.

Almost instantly, a sinister organisation called the LGB Alliance began trolling me. They offered the reward of a retweet to anyone who donated money to it in my name.

I was as a result deluged by abuse from anonymous accounts. I was called a rape enabler, a misogynist, and - although I am an openly gay man - a homophobe.

As an openly gay man I was also called a "greasy bender". The organisation concerned, the LGB Alliance, was thrown off the country's two largest crowdfunders as a hate group.

But Twitter wouldn't take their account down, despite clearly and egregiously violating Twitter's own rules.

I'm a man in my 50s, the experience wasn't pleasant, but I was acutely conscious of all the young trans people reading the venom and despairing.

That sounds appalling, I would never condone abuse, and I have sympathy for anyone on the receiving end. However, this is not my recollection of these events, which I watched unfold at the time.

While I am sure that Nicolson firmly believes his account of events, my intention here is to reconstruct the timeline a little and present an alternative view of what happened.


April 15th & 16th 2020

The Tweet that Nicolson refers to as the precipitating factor is here:

Note that John has used multiple hashtags. This will obviously increase the visibility of a tweet for any trending topics - that is what they are for after all, to promote your tweet beyond merely your own followers.

As a result, he got hundreds of replies to his original tweet, most of which looked like this:

In the account in the video at the head of this piece he claims he was trolled, but none of that really leaps out at me when I read the thread. The responses mostly read like people sick of not being listened to, or of having their positions and motives impugned trying to get a politician to engage. John didn’t reply to any of them as far as I can tell.

None of these responses are from the LGB Alliance either. On the 16th, a full day after the original tweet, they did quote one of the replies:

That is the extent of their interaction, and this is a day later. This is hardly precipitating a pile-on and it is certainly not instantaneous.

So what was the LGB Alliance doing on April 15th? Well mostly tweeting about LGB movies, which they did dozens of times. Aside from the tweet above they had nothing further to do with Nicolson.

Next, Nicolson tweeted this challenge to a now-suspended account:

And the replies were full of this sort of response:

These responses being a clear continuation of those to the April 15th tweet, and again nothing orchestrated - just many of the same connected accounts replying and retweeting each other.


April 18th 2020

It is not until April 18th that the LGB Alliance directly @ John Nicolson, and even then, only in response to someone else:

We are now 3 days since John’s original tweet about a “young trans constituent”, and LGB Alliance still have not orchestrated a pile-on.


April 20th 2020

On April 20th, John tweeted the following:

He then reposted the documentary about the trans teen, six minutes after calling the LGB Alliance sinister and transphobic and blaming them for a pile-on.

And went on to have a lengthy back and forth with Jonathan Ross:

Meanwhile his tweet calling the LGB Alliance transphobic and sinister again generated hundreds of responses, many of which looked like this:

It is hard to assess a mass interaction like this objectively. Twitter does not present the same neutral view of information to everybody. I am sure there is some abuse in there, and some that has been taken down since, and I’m positive that it is deeply unpleasant to receive more notifications than you can keep track of.

But this still isn’t an orchestrated pile-on by the LGB Alliance. While all this was going on, they were tweeting threads like this:

John Nicolson simply experienced being the focus of attention of people via their social connections - which is exactly what Twitter is designed to do. Once he had added hashtags that brought his April 15th tweet to wider notice than just his followers, Twitter’s network effects did the rest, attracting similarly-minded responders via replies and retweets. That’s all. Most people will have seen their own interactions, and those that seemed reasonable to them, making John’s responses (or lack thereof) seem completely unreasonable. John meanwhile will have been deluged with confrontational responses, and doubtless felt under siege. Whatever abuse was there will understandably have been what attracted his attention. Perhaps even reasonably intended requests were perceived as abusive, just because of the sheer volume of them.

In all this there was barely any contact with the LGB Alliance, until John called them sinister and transphobic, without any evidence, and blamed them for his pile on of the previous six days - thus generating even more incredulous responses from people who:

  1. Don’t believe the LGB Alliance are sinister or transphobic

  2. Don’t believe they were responsible for a pile-on, and

  3. Can’t quite believe an MP is making such baseless statements

John Nicolson continued into the night and early hours of the next morning, mostly arguing with Jonathan Ross, and suggesting that the LGB Alliance were sinister again, holding them responsible for multiple pile-ons, implying that they would have supported section 28, and calling the people responding to him a “transphobic army”.


April 21st 2020

At 10am on April 21st, 6 days after John Nicolson’s tweet about a trans constituent we finally arrive at the point where the LGB Alliance start to solicit donations. During all this time he had been receiving large numbers of organic traffic angered by his behaviour, his dismissal of concerns, his insults and now his unsubstantiated attack on the LGB Alliance. Up to now the responses had comprised a mix of reasoned engagement and increasing amounts of outright hostility and exasperation. Responders spontaneously began donating to the LGB Alliance crowdfunder in John Nicolson’s name - and once it started, the LGB Alliance simply amplified it. The following link is a thread containing dozens such messages:


April 24th - 30th 2020

On April 24th, John Nicolson tweeted Janey Godley, and again blamed the LGB Alliance for a pile-on.

This then descended into spreading conspiracy theories about US far-right involvement without any basis (their timeline contained no evidence of whatever it was that John Nicolson thought would be substantiated there), claiming they wrote “angry” tweets, and copying in Police Scotland:

The LGB Alliance reached out to try to open dialogue, without success.

Meanwhile donations continued to come in, further mocking John’s behaviour:

Which is all quite understandable on an individual level because if you think an MP is making an idiot of himself then this sort of mockery can seem like harmless needling. To each person donating it seems minimal enough, but to the target it no doubt feels like a torrent of criticism. As such, by April 29th, the fundraiser had been taken down for targeted harassment.

Over this period there were several replies about the crowdfunder from Archie Sturrock, one of John Nicolson’s staff, but those tweets have all been deleted so little remains apart from screenshots, such as this one:


Aftermath

Since then, John Nicolson has on a few occasions produced images of the abuse from the crowdfunder to illustrate what he was subjected to, to justify his initial unsubstantiated assertions about the LGB Alliance and label them a “hate group”.

However, I think it is worth actually reading the comments, which are mostly mockery or frustration. The ones screenshotted here are the absolute worst that could be found - the vast majority, of dozens upon dozens, were completely benign. Even in these images that so offend John, there is nothing abusive about saying that lesbians can assert same-sex attraction, and the third image is a repeat from the first. The second image is by far the worst, but merits closer inspection:

You’ll note the format of the second image is different. This is because it was not retweeted by the LGB Alliance - rather, it is an abusive message left on the crowdfunder, that the LGB Alliance asked JustGiving to remove once it appeared.

The tone of this removed comment is markedly different to even the most swear-filled ones that were retweeted. While there is no proof whatsoever that this was left maliciously, it can’t really be ruled out.

It could be a genuine supporter with hateful views. Or someone who thought it was worth £20 to see if they could actually get the LGB Alliance to retweet something that creepy. Or it could be disinformation, and £20 is a small price to discredit the LGB Alliance and get their fundraising shut down. There is no way to know, but the actions of the organisation in not retweeting it and trying to get it taken down of their own volition would certainly dispute John’s framing.

At no point could I find any response calling John a “greasy bender”, as alleged. It is possible this happened, and such appallingly hateful language was rightly removed from twitter in the last year.

Or it is possible John is referring to this incident in 2019, 10 months before the formation of the LGB Alliance:


Summary

Which brings us to the end of the sequence of events John referred to in the video. So, in summary:

  • It was 6 days between tweeting about the documentary and the LGB Alliance encouraging donations in John’s name.

  • The traffic John received from that tweet was organic, initially from the hashtags he used to encourage engagement.

  • Whatever pile-on he experienced was a result of Twitter’s engagement model, not anything orchestrated.

  • The replies he got were largely reasonable individually, with some impatience and hostility over the subsequent days due to perceived lack of response (eg. ignoring hundreds of women who felt they were asking fair questions, but having time to exchange a couple of dozen tweets with a male celebrity)

  • The precipitating event for the LGB Alliance involvement was John calling them sinister, transphobic and far right, as well as blaming them for the replies he was getting.

  • This led to mockery in the replies, and donations in his name on the crowdfunder, which the LGB Alliance then started to retweet.

  • The majority of comments on the crowdfunder were uncontroversial. The worst comment was removed at the request of the LGB Alliance, and its provenance is unknown.

  • John’s implication that he was called a “greasy bender” as a result of the LGB Alliance cannot be substantiated, and it seems possible that it is a reference to an earlier, unrelated incident.

Hopefully this sheds some light on events. It is certain that the timeline I have pulled out is not truly authoritative or free of bias, but even taking that into account, I don’t believe John Nicolson’s description of this incident in the video is fair or accurate.

Additionally, in the year since these events, John Nicolson has continued to repeat unsubstantiated smears, such as accusations of engineering far-right entryist interference in an SNP election:

So far he has ignored all attempts to engage in dialogue or correct the record.


Coda

Twitter is a truly awful platform for informing us about the present or the past, but a great one for making us fervently believe whatever we are shown. Twitter shows none of us anything close to an objective and balanced view of what is happening. Instead we see a personalised one tailored to flatter our sense of ourselves and our place in a group, or to drive us into polarised bunkers.

Hence it is entirely possible for people to be presented with the same sequence of events and experience it in totally opposing ways. Our prior beliefs shape the information we subsequently receive. If we have bias, Twitter amplifies it - and we all have bias.

Not only that but because the past is mutable, with tweets and accounts being deleted and expunged from the record, it becomes impossible to see fully what the past was. Thus the present is ephemeral and personalised.

200 million different views of now, all tailored to us, presented in a way designed to make us accept it without thinking, lost once we have seen it, and none of it operating in our interest.