Twitter reporting and general points on moderation

I’ve been working as a moderator for two years now, and the attacks on Caroline Criado-Perez and my realisation that Twitter doesn’t have an easy ‘report abuse’ mechanism made me think about exactly how reporting might work on Twitter. And then, since I’m here, I’ve whacked out some ponderings on moderation in general. Because, y’know.

Reporting abuse on Twitter

At the moment if you want to report an abusive user you have to fill in a massive form. I mean, it’s huge. It wasn’t easy to find, either. That might be fine if you’ve got one person who’s repeatedly attacking you but if you’re experiencing a sustained campaign of abuse, it’s just not practical.

There’s a page in Twitter’s help section that says you can report abuse from the individual tweet page by clicking on the ‘more’ option, but this doesn’t appear for me. Presumably it’s what Twitter’s Tony Wang is referring to when he says the company is trialling new ways to report.

Won’t a ‘report abuse’ button be abused?

God, yes. Happens all the time. I see a lot of comments about football being reported by fans of rival teams. But it’s all in the implementation. A fully or partially automated system is definitely open to abuse because machines can’t appreciate nuance, and anything that triggers an automatic, temporary suspension (which I believe happens at the moment) is just asking to be abused by anyone who wants to attack an account proffering an opposing point of view.

If I were developing this, it would be managed entirely by humans. If you report a tweet or an account it would vanish from your timeline so you don’t have to look at it any more (this is what Twitter is already trialling) but it stays live. A human being then assesses the tweet against Twitter’s published guidelines and makes a judgement on whether a suspension or total ban is needed.

Note that I say Twitter’s published guidelines. They’re there so that everyone knows where they stand, and assessments can only be made against them. That goes for every site, everywhere. From what I’ve seen, some of the threats against Criado-Perez would fail current guidelines (“You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.”), though the guidelines aren’t very detailed1. You might not like the guidelines (Facebook’s stupid ‘no breastfeeding photos’ is one example) but that’s another issue2.

And moderators aren’t idiots. A malicious report is obvious and I don’t act on it. It doesn’t matter if 1,000 people report the same comment, if it doesn’t break the guidelines it stays. I’d rather 1,000 people didn’t report the comment because that creates a lot of work, but I’m not going to cave under sheer numbers. I’d also rather wade through 999 false reports than not have a decent mechanism for one that’s genuine.

I’ve seen a concern that an easy ‘report abuse’ button on Twitter could be taken up by celebrities looking to sick their followers onto someone. But if implemented intelligently, the system could actually spell the end of that kind of abuse of power. If I get a load of reports in a short timeframe it’s fairly obvious it’s been sparked by something specific. If a tweet is constantly reported that was directed at someone famous, it’s the work of a few minutes to check that celebrity’s timeline and see if they unleashed the mob. In such a situation I think a short sleb suspension would be in order; banning people for malicious reporting does happen and I’ve done it.

This is going to need a lot of people

Yup. That’s what happens if you want decent moderation. Sorry, Twitter, you’re going to have to increase your staff. And sorry, Twitter users, you’ll probably have to put up with more adverts to pay for them.

And anyway, Twitter currently has the capacity to suspend accounts because an avatar breaks a trademark (as a friend of mine found out). If it can do that, it can adequately deal with abuse as well.

It’s not Twitter’s job to be the police

Isn’t it? In my job, if I see something that’s a clear and credible threat I pass it up the management chain and it could potentially end up with the police. If the tweets sent to Criado-Perez containing her address and a threat to rape her had been posted to somewhere I was working, I would have immediately flagged that. The same goes if someone seems to be a credible suicide risk. I’m here to protect as well moderate – partly because I’ve been trained to have knowledge of certain laws and am perhaps better positioned to spot breaches than your average Joe. I don’t see why Twitter should put all the responsibility onto its users.

What’s the problem with the current system? It’s only a form

It is just a form. But as I said above, it’s not practical if you have more than a couple of accounts to report. I’ve never experienced a tirade of abuse into my personal accounts, but I have for work.

It started with a trickle of messages into the software I was using to moderate a Facebook page. They were all the same, clearly a copy and paste job being directed from somewhere else. But within a minute there were 100 messages waiting to be processed in the queue, then within five minutes there was 1,000. And it wasn’t slowing down. I dealt with it quickly because a) I’m a pro b) I had the right tools at my disposal and c) none of it was directed at me personally. I cannot imagine having to report each one in a laborious process, without colleagues to call on, in my own time, and having to assess and explain in detail why each horrible comment directed at me broke the guidelines.

And I’m having genuine difficulty thinking of a website or social media platform that doesn’t have some form of one-click reporting. If you create a platform you have to accept some responsibility for the safety and peace of mind of your users.

Twitter’s international, how is it supposed to deal with different countries’ laws?

I don’t know; find some kind of common ground? Ask Facebook how it does it? It’s not like this stuff hasn’t been worked out by other platforms. Edit: to be clear, I’m talking about Twitter asking Facebook how it’s worked out complying with basic legal requirements across various countries, not how Facebook moderates.

[The section that follows has apparently been read by some people as me advocating the following be applied to Twitter. Hells, no! It'd be unworkable and massively undesirable. The following is more of a background to me, as an agency moderator, working on company sites and pages, which all have more restrictive guidelines than the much more laissez faire basic platform guidelines of Twitter and Facebook et al.]

And more generally… moderators will be swayed by their own personal beliefs

Not if you employ decent people. You wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff I’ve let stand even though I found it foul and deeply offensive. If it passes site guidelines it doesn’t get touched; if a moderator doesn’t abide by this rule they won’t be in the job very long.

What about companies deleting comments they don’t like?

99 times out of 100, this won’t happen because companies are now savvy enough to realise this is brand suicide.  If there genuinely are no negative comments, then the company is stupid and you probably shouldn’t do business with them. Or they’re the most amazing company and nobody’s ever had a problem. Hahahahaha. I’m kidding. Someone, somewhere, will always have a problem that the best place to air is Facebook.

No, I’ve seen it happen!

Have you? Or have you seen people complaining that their comment got removed ‘for no reason at all’? When in actual fact (and when I see people complaining while I’m working, I always check back) the comments got deleted for very, very obvious reasons. If someone is insistent that their comment got removed because it somehow reflected badly on the site, look around for a moment and see how many other negative comments there are. I’ll bet there are loads, but none of them is calling the CEO a fuckwit.

Moderation is censorship and is against my human rights

You have no protected human right to heap abuse on anyone or to say ‘motherfucker’ on Facebook. Grow up.

Moderation is definitely censorship though

OK, let’s talk this one out. If you consider removing comments containing severe swearing censorship (moderators genuinely have a list of permitted swearwords; e.g., ‘arse but not arsehole’, ‘one shit but no more’) then OK it’s censorship, but no more so than the TV watershed. You may be posting in a public space, but if you’re posting on someone else’s page or site it’s still ‘owned’ by them and they have a right to set the tone of the discussion.

More contentious may be the removal of mindless comments like “[product] is shit” or “[name of competitor] FTW!”. This is a circumstance where those complaining their negative comment got removed has some grounding, but not a huge amount; firstly, it’s easy trolling. You have a problem with a company? Fine, write it out properly. But mainly these types of comments can get removed because of what happens afterwards. Generally 20 other, equally immature, commenters leap in with inventive suggestions of how the original poster can go fuck him- or herself. It derails a conversation and is unpleasant to read. Someone on Twitter suggested that keeping social media a ‘pleasant’ place sounds a bit Stepford. Maybe. But I’ve seen the alternative and I prefer it this way.

Another major reason for ‘censorship’ is legal grounds. Your comment may be deleted because it’s breaching copyright or trademark law, contempt of court law (not many people understand this one; as a general rule, if a trial is ongoing, don’t write a comment saying “hang him” because you’ve just assumed guilt), or falls into the category of illegal hate speech. In those circumstances you should be pleased your comment got removed; we, as moderators, just saved you from getting your ass sued à la Lord McAlpine.

Twitter won’t be moderating on this kind of scale though; and nobody is going to ban an account for general use of ‘cunt’. Though if all an account is doing is calling people cunts, that could be enough for a ban if it’s reported. And that needs a human being to make a judgement.

I don’t care, it’s all censorship

OK. You’re entitled to your opinion. But may I humbly suggest that if you feel this strongly that you should be able to express yourself on whatever subject and in whatever manner you choose, then perhaps the Waitrose Facebook page3 is not the place for you?

If a troll is banned, won’t they just set up a different account?

Yes. But as I’ve already said, moderators aren’t stupid. Trolls, on the other hand, often are. It is usually so obvious when an account is a sockpuppet or secondary account; when I read this New Statesman article about the gamification of trolling (in essence: trolls are proud of their behaviour so want duplicate accounts to be recognisable) I nodded in agreement so much I was in danger of pulling a neck muscle. Usernames are similar; email addresses used to sign up are variations on a theme; syntax, spelling, arguments are all very familiar. I worked on one site where one user had at least 30 aliases; when we banned him on a Tuesday I’d be waiting for him to reappear on the Wednesday. Eventually he got bored and pissed off.

That kind of thing is easier to keep track of when you’re working on a small site. For Twitter, if they don’t have some kind of database where they can check suspicions about duplicate accounts they’d be foolish. However, creating a duplicate account in itself isn’t necessarily grounds for banning – though if new accounts are being created specifically to abusively troll they’ll break the guidelines pretty quickly. My advice would be to report on the basis of rule breaking and add suspicions of a troll returning as a secondary matter; if you report just because, after a couple of tweets, you think your troll has returned you’ll get yourself a reputation for malicious reporting.

Added 30 July: I forgot to say that of course, spammers set up different accounts as soon as the originals are taken down. But I don’t see anyone saying ‘oh, we should just block and ignore them, they’re entitled to advertise their fake Viagra pills if they want’.

How do you cope with this stuff on a daily basis?

I’m dead inside.

———————————

1. I’ve often thought it would be helpful for many websites to expand on their published guidelines. I’ve worked on several sites where guidance to moderators runs to several pages, but the only guidance to users is a couple of sentences of impenetrable legalese. Then they wonder at users getting pissed off when they don’t understand why comments get removed.

2. I’ve seen Twitter have apparently rejected a report of “I will rape you when I get the chance” as it doesn’t violate their rules. I guess they’re only looking for what we’d call ‘specific, direct threats’; in other words, they want a time and a place, or some other indication that the user genuinely intends to rape the target. I’m hoping that this is because Twitter doesn’t currently have the resources to properly investigate this kind of abuse and not because it doesn’t think it’s their job to act. On any project I’ve worked on, a comment like this would be immediately blocked and the user potentially banned for unacceptable abuse. I’d also be interested to know if the police have a lower threshold for triggering an investigation than Twitter do for banning. If so: Twitter, you have a problem.

3. I do not work for Waitrose or its Facebook page.

Did I miss any points? Put them in the comments and I’ll see if I have any background knowledge that might help. 

On t-shirts, rape and pitchforks

It takes a lot for me to fire up this blog these days. Usually only when I can’t say what I want to in a reasonable number of 140 character bites, or it’s nothing to do with London (in which Londonist gets it) and that doesn’t happen often. But. This ‘Keep Calm and Rape Her’ t-shirt thing. Right.

It should obviously go without saying that this t-shirt is abhorrent, but I work on the internet so I know I need to say it or someone will think I condone it. Phrases and ‘jokes’ that encourage rape are not funny, they are horrific. Let’s agree that we all understand this and move on.

Here’s a blog post that posits a pretty good theory about how that t-shirt came to exist. In a nutshell: there are a 500,000+ t-shirts on that store so it’s unlikely each of those was specifically designed by a human being. Instead, someone somewhere designed an algorithm to spit out phrases that can be printed onto a t-shirt if someone wants one.

Should the word ‘rape’ ever have been included in that algorithm? Of course it fucking shouldn’t. But rather than instantly assuming the intent was to make a ‘joke’ about raping women, I wonder if the word got in there as a gaming reference. It’s quite common to see gamers talking about “lol let’s go rape some noobs”. I don’t like the way ‘rape’ is used in this context, but it’s how our language has evolved and it’s where we are. (There’s a whole other discussion to be had around the normalisation of such language in boys and young men, but that’s for another day.) This is also possibly how ‘hit’ and ‘maul’ got into the mix, too. There are comments on that blog post about how there’s no ‘Keep Calm and Rape Him‘ t-shirts, but by this point there are no ‘Keep Calm and Rape’ anything on either Amazon or Solid Gold Bomb. Someone has been very busy with the delete button. Trying to look for evidence of deliberate misogyny now is very much a case of horse/stable door; omission is no longer admissable evidence.

I’ve also seen comments on Twitter about what a crock of shit it is that no human being was involved in the creation of the t-shirts. What, they’re saying, nobody listed them on Amazon, nobody printed them or shipped them? Well, possibly not; like I said, with 500,000+ designs, all automatically created and listed, it is entirely possible that nobody at the company or Amazon spotted the offensive combinations until a consumer did. And the only time anyone would have laid eyes on one in the real world is if one was ordered. We can only hope nobody ever did. Out of 500,000 products, it’s unlikely. (Of course, if someone did, that changes the game. But we don’t know.)

Clay Harris on Twitter said a very perceptive thing:

When one thinks of it, Amazon is much like a site with un-moderated comments, relying on users to call abuses to its attention

This is it. Very few people will have seen this design, one of them raised the alarm. And then social media went nuts calling everybody involved misogynist fuckwits; perhaps partly because they didn’t understand how it had happened, but perhaps partly because Twitter loves to get its pitchfork out. I work with the bottom half of the internet every day and boy, do people love to get angry about stuff before they fully understand it. I’m not saying I fully understand what happened here, but I think it’s sensible to look at a few other sides of the argument before I conclude the right one is ‘OMGZ WHAT TOTAL BASTUDS’.

Basically what I’m saying is: very few people are inherently evil. What people are, is stupid, and lazy, and not always able to see all the consequences of their actions. I suspect that’s what happened here. If this incident prompts more editorial oversight and more thoughtfulness from producers of anything, then this is a good thing. But we could have got there without the screaming. We’re reasonable people. Let’s act like it.

My teacher, who liked the feel of little girls’ bottoms

First things first. Before I even start, let me make quite clear that I’m not in need of sympathy from this post. I haven’t thought of the incidents described here for years and was only reminded because I started reading this New Yorker article, which has striking similarities. Any emotional scarring was either dealt with yonks ago or replaced by other emotional bullshit. I write this simply to point out how easy it is for people in power to get away with abusing vulnerable people. And how it doesn’t just happen with the Jimmy Saviles of this world, but bloody everywhere.

When I was in third year junior school (that’s 9/10 years old), I was placed in the class of Mr D. Every pupil in the school knew that Mr D was, in our schoolyard language, a massive perv. Girls leaving his class warned those of us coming in: watch yourselves. When you went up to his desk with some work, he had a fondness for putting his arm around you, pulling you in close, and putting his hand on your arse for a good old squeeze, or rubbing his hand up and down your back (to see if we were wearing bras yet? I don’t know).

I repeat: we were 9 and 10 years old. We knew something wasn’t quite right and we knew we didn’t like it, but we had no idea what to do about it and certainly no idea that it was the kind of thing someone could possibly be arrested for. Eventually, after several months, we had a conflab and decided that if we squeezed our bum cheeks together the next time he was having a grope, really tightened them up, it would send a message. And it did. The bum groping stopped but the hugging and the rubbing carried on. So we started standing several feet away from the desk and resisting when he tried to pull us in. I think it took about six months for him to give up altogether.

We moved up a year, we warned the girls coming in. Did we think about telling another teacher? No. Why? I don’t think we realised it was something we needed to. He was a grown up, right? It was weird and horrible and pervy, but it couldn’t have been wrong. And thinking back, it was such common knowledge around the school that I’d be highly surprised if a rumour or two hadn’t reached the ears of another teacher. And it all seemed to be fine. He had two sons, older than us, who’d been at the same school. He lived in the village, a pillar of the community. It must be fine, right?

Let’s move on five years. It was lunchtime and some moron boy came up and grabbed the breasts of one of my friends. I got very angry and shoved him away. It really upset me, and it wasn’t until I got home that I thought about Mr D, started crying and told my parents. I don’t recall them getting outraged but they did call my school and speak to my head of year, Mrs B – because, you see, Mr D was a parent governor at my high school, so even my current teachers knew him. I think my parents thought Mrs B would know what to do.

The next day I had a chat with Mrs B. I don’t remember much about that either, apart from being very embarrassed and perhaps not going into much detail. I felt a bit stupid, like I was making a mountain out of a molehill. Because it must have all been fine, right? Nobody would let a man like that be in charge of 15 girls of 9 and 10 years of age. I have no idea if Mrs B did anything with the information (I should point out – as if you were in any doubt – that I was one of the most trusted pupils in my school, a responsible, swotty, spoddy kid not given to making trouble. If you’re looking for a reliable witness, I am it). But I know that Mr D continued as parent governor and, as far as I know, was still teaching at my old junior school when I left the area at 21.

I don’t know if Mr D ever went further than groping little girls through their clothes. I don’t know if that would have been enough to get him sacked (though the NSPCC seems to think so). I don’t know if any of my friends ever said anything. I didn’t tell any of them that I was talking to Mrs B. I don’t know if any of the girls he groped experienced lasting emotional problems because of what he did. I tried my best. I spoke up. Nothing happened. Once or twice since I’ve thought about trying again, but I have no idea if I’d be believed after all this time, whether anyone would care (were we raped? Were they the ‘worst kind of sexual offences‘? No? Then shut up), or whether I could actually go through a court case if it came to it.

So there you go. It really is that simple. When it comes to a trusted adult and some kids, there’s only ever going to be one winner. Either because the kids are too naive to tell anyone what happened, or because they assume it’s already known and therefore must be OK, or because when they do nobody listens anyway.

In which I confront a street harasser and it goes a bit wrong

I just waited 50 minutes for a 208 bus before giving up and coming home (whole other TfL rant), but while I was waiting at the bus stop I did something… Was it stupid? I don’t think in principle it was stupid. It just ended up being slightly unfortunate.

At around 35 minutes into my bus wait I noticed a man, maybe in his 50s, start approaching women in the street asking for a cigarette or a light or something (he already had a lit, half-smoked cigarette in his hand). And when I say ‘asking’, I mean lurching at them, getting up very close, with a look of glee that wasn’t, on closer inspection, all that gleeful but actually rather malicious. Then he approached two young women (16, 17) and freaked them out so badly that they ran off.

He ignored a bus that pulled up until he saw that a woman had got on, at which point he dived through the exit doors and started shouting at her. He was ushered off, then spotted a pretty blonde woman sitting by a window and started banging, with the full force of his forearm, on the window and didn’t stop until the bus drove off.

He didn’t approach me. I was watching him the whole time with a scowl on my face, hopefully projecting a vibe of ‘come near me sunshine and it will end badly for you’. I don’t get much street harassment; the occasional yell out of a van, something stupid mumbled on a street. I get far less since I dyed my hair purple than I did when I was blonde; it upsets me a little that the main reason I will never go blonde again (which would be far easier for me to manage, what with my rapidly greying hair) is because I don’t want to attract wankers.

The man wandered away a bit. The two young women came back. He saw them and retraced his steps, leering. Oh, that’s it, I thought. So, channeling Hollaback, I shouted:

No, get out of here before I call the police. You don’t get to harass women in the street. Go on, leave.

His face turned to pure fury. He advanced on me screaming – how dare I talk to him like that? Who the fuck did I think I was? At this point I yelled at him to go on, fuck off, get out of here.

He walked right up to me, yelling in my face

You should be grateful you’re a woman, I’m a man beater not a woman beater! If you were a man I’d fucking beat you! You don’t have the right to talk to me like that!

By this point another woman at the bus stop had come to stand next to me and was murmuring to me ‘he’s a local, I work round here, don’t worry’ and had put her arm between me and him. He stumbled off. The two young women, the woman who intervened and another woman came to check I was OK (I was fine; I’d just stood there glaring at him with my arms folded, but no idea what my face was doing. Red? White?). I felt stupid that by trying to stop other women feeling threatened I’d forced other women to come to my aid. The woman who intervened said he’s well known in that bit of Lewisham High Street and that it’s best if people just ignore him and that the police never do anything (I guess we know how she felt about my outburst) and the other woman, who works in a local school, gave me some background, including that he’s been under the care of mental health services but not any longer. The two young women said he had genuinely scared them so I feel like I did some smidgen of good if I at least got him to piss off.

I also feel a bit stupid for not recognising that this guy was clearly an alcoholic and had problems… No, actually, scratch that. I don’t care what problems he has. Ignoring him and letting him have free rein to harass and scare means that one day he could easily go too far with some poor girl who doesn’t have the nerve or the experience to run into a shop or a bus (and why should anyone have to run away to feel safe?), or maybe it’ll be at night and she’ll be too traumatised to go out again on her own. Yes, fuck it, I’d do that again; in fact, I’d have taken a smack in the face if it meant he could be arrested for assault.

Not sure how to end this post, my heart is still racing a little bit. In a good way. Hmm.

Why I should stop expecting sitcoms to be feminist

I’m very fond of How I Met Your Mother. I like the way characters are allowed to get drunk without it being a plot point. I like the way it has a normal couple in the main group. I like how it messes with linear narrative. OK, I’m not all that thrilled with the way it treats the “strippers, skanks and bimbos” Barney screws around with, but having him played by a gay man does subvert the character somewhat. As does making him a douche.

I like the way its single woman, Robin, is uncompromisingly feisty and career minded. Or, I did until the last couple of episodes. Just to catch you up, Robin Scherbatsky is a TV journalist. She wants to travel and work abroad. She’s not that bothered about having a long term relationship. And she definitely, definitely does not want kids.

In the episode before the mid season break, Robin discovers that she actually can’t have children. It was Cobie Smulders’ Emmy shot: the character has to deal with having the choice of whether or not to have kids taken away from her. There’s a lot of wandering through snow and being upset. Naturally. But then came the final voiceover line, as Robin returns home to find Ted has decked out the apartment in all its Christmas finery for her – something like, “because kids, the one thing your Aunt Robin never was, was alone”.

OH FUCK OFF. Don’t you dare take a strong female character and imply that without children, her life would be empty. That winding up alone is a distinct possibility for the childless woman. Is the childless woman not allowed to have lifelong friends? Is the childless woman not allowed to have other family? Are the children of a fertile woman guaranteed to never fall out / emigrate / do whatever else they could do to fail to fulfil their apparent destiny to make sure their mother is never ‘alone’? Is the childless woman not allowed to get married?

Hmm. Well. This last was addressed in this week’s episode. Robin’s bland [i.e., 'nice' in TV land] boyfriend of about six months proposes to her. She tells him she can’t have children. He still wants to marry her. Hooray! Then she explains that even though she can’t have children, she’s still choosing not to have any – which rules out adoption, surrogacy, etc. He does want children after all, so he breaks it off. OK, fine. Incompatible life plans. This is still about Robin’s choices, not her infertility. It’s quite empowering. Until the final scene where Robin, weeping, explains to Ted what’s happened, and says “he couldn’t look past it [the infertility]. Who could?”

SERIOUSLY. JUST FUCKING FUCK OFF. A moment ago this was about Robin not wanting children, now we’re back to her being doomed to a life of staring at walls because her womb will be forever empty? I find this offensive, both as someone who chooses not to have children and someone with a friend who has recently been told she’s infertile. How the hell did this show go from having a strong female character who knows what she wants from life, to this supposedly tragic figure? When Robin declared she didn’t want children, were we supposed to be thinking ‘ah, she’ll change her mind’, because everyone knows having children is what women do?

There was an opportunity here to show the shock, internal conflict and coming to terms with being told you’re infertile, which they did quite nicely. Shame it was undone by falling back on ‘she can’t have children OH NO HER LIFE IS RUINED’.

(I’ve spoilered myself about the ending to this series, and I know that the producers aren’t planning for Robin to end up alone. That being the case – some more enlightened dialogue, please, for pity’s sake.)

(Also: this series hasn’t been very good in general. I’m starting to hope Ted meets the mother soon, and puts the show out of its misery.)

Cookies

I don’t know. Something about cookies. This template may well use them to track visits. If that bothers you, you should probably turn them off.

And thus ends what will probably be the only post here for another two months. (Customary whine: I’m really really busy. If you miss me – though god knows why you would – you can find me at Londonist. A lot.)

The Lib Dems don’t give a fuck

The Lib Dem Conference has voted to not debate the idea of kicking the Health and Social Reform Bill into touch, but to debate Shirley Williams’s motion of “aren’t the leadership so very good and special and look at all the amendments they’ve made which contribute to making the bill such a fucking mess” instead.

Twitter is up in arms. The rest of the country might be up in arms as well, but I’ve working since 8am (now nearly 11pm) and Twitter is literally all I can see. There’s a place on the internet where you can tweet all the Lib Dem MPs who are on Twitter and ask them to vote to drop the NHS bill in the Commons debate on Tuesday, which Andy Burnham has finally managed to swing (the government ignoring their own promise to debate every e-petition that gets over 100,000 signatures is something for another day).

Lots of people have tweeted the MPs. Some made their displeasure about the vote felt by using the hashtag for the Lib Dem conference. And in response, some Lib Dem conference attendees or other party affiliates accused the tweeters of spamming or being Labour party members.

Labour party members? Is this really how insular parliamentary politics has become, that concerned citizens – genuinely worried and quite fucking scared at the prospect of a legal basis being set up for excluding people from healthcare and charging for things that are currently free, creating a two-tier system like the one that works so well in America – can’t express that concern without being accused of playing party politics? ‘They can’t possibly have their own opinions and fears, someone must have put them up to it.’

Yes, this action has coalesced around the debate on Tuesday, but that’s because we see it as our last chance, our last hope. You see it as a way to further your career. We want our elected representatives to hear our voices, you wonder how we dare question those same elected representatives. We passionately believe in something, you – as other, wittier people on Twitter put it – passionately believe in your comfortable ministerial car. We think this is a matter way beyond partisanship, you are so enmeshed in it you can’t see anything else. We say we’re about to lose faith in you, that a lot of us are floating voters who voted Lib Dem in 2010 because we thought we saw another way; you react to us like we’ve touched you with filthy hands. Apparently we’re not meant to come that close to our dear leaders until 2015.

For what it’s worth, here’s my voting record since turning 18 in 1996:

  • 1997 general election: Labour
  • 2005 general election (stupidly wasn’t registered in 2001): Lib Dem
  • 2010 general election: Green
  • Council elections 1998-2005ish – Lib Dem
  • Council elections 2005ish-2010 mix of Lib Dem and Green
  • 2004 London elections: probably Ken Livingstone (honestly can’t remember, but can’t think of who else I’d have voted for), Assembly mixture of Lib Dem and Green
  • 2008 London elections: Brian Paddick first, Ken Livingstone second, Assembly mixture of Lib Dem and Green

Political parties – I am yours for the taking. But not by you, Lib Dems. Not now.

Women are funny

You’ve probably not heard of Newsjack. It’s squirrelled away on Radio 4 Extra (yes, that’s a thing) and is a topical comedy news show. But there’s one difference – it has an open door policy for writers. That means anyone can submit sketches or quick jokes. Anyone. I’d vaguely heard about it because I follow a few comedy writers on Twitter and some people I vaguely know, know the people who work on it. But in the wake of Chortle managing to only nominate two women for their annual awards, @funnywomen retweeted something Newsjack said.

Only around a tenth of submissions for the first episode came from women? Well, there’s only one way to actively make a difference to that. So I submitted four jokes.

And one got aired.

If you really, really want to hear it, it’s on iPlayer til something like next Sunday, comes within the first couple of minutes and is the one about the horse*. It earned me £18.

This post isn’t about me bigging up how brilliant I am – though, clearly, I am sodding amazing and will be writing the autocue bits on HIGNFY by Christmas – it’s about funny women. Because there are tons of them/us. I can kind of understand why there are fewer female standups but women comedy writers? That’s sitting in a room – or, in my case, hanging up the washing when I started giggling (laughing at your own jokes=not cool) – writing some stuff down and emailing it off. Half my timeline on Twitter is people making jokes about stuff in the news. Many of them are women. I suspect fewer women have the ego to think ‘hmm, I wonder if these gags could make me £18? I’ll just have an investigate and see if there’s anywhere I could send it’, or pay attention when they see something like Newsjack mentioned. I certainly didn’t pay attention until my feminist hackles were raised. Me? Write for a comedy show? That’s ludicrous. But apparently not.

And jeez, if I can do it…

* “Somewhere an annoyed [police] officer is shouting ‘no, the journalist was offering YOU a pony’.”

A contractor’s tale

So. That Department of Health / contractors / limited company tax thing.

It’s pretty common. I’ve done a similar thing (and been asked to do the limited company thing) myself.

For most of the time while I contracted, I used an umbrella company. I’ve had it patiently explained to me by a couple of agencies that this means I’m classed as a limited company for payroll and tax reasons (patiently because I have no fucking clue about how it all works in terms of the maths and legalities).

When I first started working, via a recruitment agency, for one of those mammoth services companies that operate government contracts, in February 2009 it was fairly straightforward – submit timesheet to the agency, paid via PAYE. But after a couple of months the agency was very keen to get me to move to an umbrella company. They said I would earn more money that way. I didn’t really understand it but the idea of having one constant employer (the umbrella company became my legal employer) as I moved around various jobs appealed – one set of paperwork at the end of the year. Also, I’d been out of work for a while and the agency were really, really keen. They didn’t say I’d be viewed more favourably if I moved, but…

This is how the money broke down. The recuitment agency passed my gross pay onto my umbrella company. I presume this saved the agency money because they didn’t have to process payroll. The umbrella agency did some weird expenses thing and reduced my income tax but I suddenly started paying two lots of National Insurance – I started paying employer’s and employee’s NI (despite, you’ll remember, the umbrella company being my employer). This saved some company somewhere some money because I was now paying their NI requirement. I also paid the umbrella company a £25 per week fee for the privilege of having my own payroll processed. In what I believe to be a quirk of the amount I was earning, my take home pay was exactly the same as it would have been if I’d stuck to PAYE.

So. The recruitment agency saved money. The umbrella company made money. I stayed about the same – the whole point of reduced tax seemed to be to compensate for the extra NI. The only person who lost out in this saga was the Treasury, who missed out on some of my tax so businesses could make more cash.

I think that’s how it worked. I handed my pay slips to my Mum once – who worked as a bookkeeper for years – and she couldn’t make head nor tail of what the numbers actually meant.

I don’t think this is quite what happened at the DoH, but I tell you to show that tax avoidance is encouraged when it comes to contractors. I’m sure some contractors do make money from the system (I didn’t), but it mainly seems to be there to help companies earn a few extra bucks thanks to the Treasury.

Eventually that services company lost the government contract I’d been working on and the quango in question took it back in house. Except they took it back too quickly and totally weren’t ready to deal with it. So I, as the sole contractor left, was approached to see if I’d be willing to do some work if they needed me. I said yes. And then they said they’d only be able to employ me if I turned myself into a limited company. They weren’t prepared to deal with agencies, or my umbrella company. I don’t know why. I can only assume it saved them money (this was at the start of the government’s public spending freeze and the quango was desperately counting every penny).

I looked into it – I didn’t get as far as the tax implications and, frankly, wouldn’t have understood it if I had – and quickly realised that the fees involved were too high for work that wasn’t guaranteed. I declined their somewhat foot-shooting offer.

So there you go. An organisation funded by the taxpayer refusing to hire anyone unless they were a limited company – which is, I believe, exactly how the guys at the DoH were paid. So rather than pointing the finger at the tax-cheating contractor-scum, let’s take a look at whether the DoH encouraged the practice itself and whether it was their idea to deny their own bloody Exchequer some money.

Popping in

I know. I know. What can I say? After far too long being unemployed I am now overemployed – three jobs and a couple of other major commitments, one of which will pay eventually. And occasional bits of freelancing. I’m working at least eight hours a day, seven days a week. And do you know what?

I bloody love it.

I’m working from home. I get to organise my own time. I’m working on what I want to (a rare treat in recessionary times). There’s a lot to do, but a lot of it’s writing which is, obviously, fantastic. And it’s writing that I want to do rather than plugging some recent company publication. I have no idea how sustainable this is long term, but I do know I’m pretty much ruined for ever going back to the 9-5.

I also know that my own blogging is going to end up taking a back seat. Sorry, blog. But if you want to know what I think about the London election keep an eye on Londonist. There’ll be a lot of stuff there.

In the meantime, did you know car eyelashes were a thing?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.