Technological Troubles: Unexpected Barriers to Inclusion

After my expansion to social media (www.twitter.com/autistliberal) proved to be fraught with problems, I’ve come to realise that the barriers to my inclusion in politics can sometimes come in the unlikeliest of forms…

(22/11/2017)

It’s widely accepted that high-functioning autists tend to be good with computers. By definition, our brains favour the systematic and logical over the abstract and emotive. Some might even envisage a natural harmony between people pre-conditioned to see the world in black and white and machines built to process information, on the most fundamental level, in zeroes and ones.

Autists are highly susceptible to obsessions, and computers (especially video games) number among our most common topics of fixation. Several of the highest profile computer geniuses of recent years have been autistic – a trend which sadly applies to hacking and other abuses of technology as well as to more admirable areas such as programming. Perhaps this is why computing businesses (Microsoft to name but one) lead the way in industries’ recognition of autistic peoples’ unique potential.

Though by no means a computer genius, I tend to conform to the general trend. I’m qualified in ICT at Further Education level, I love video games with a passion, and I once taught myself the standardised method of touch-typing completely by accident.

Yet there are some areas of computer use, such as downloading, researching, and social media, in which my condition certainly feels more hindrance than help. A wide range of problematic situations ultimately boil down to a single common factor – a lack of clear instructions. The neurotypical’s preferred source of online help, the dreaded user discussion forum, presents me with a maze of mysterious acronyms and inexplicable slang, populated by people compelled to assume prior knowledge I simply don’t have, and all underpinned by one of an autist’s oldest adversaries – information overload.

In summary, a high-functioning autistic person can do just about anything on a computer, but only if (and it’s a big if) clear instructions are provided. 

This hasn’t, however, proven to be the biggest problem for someone such as myself aiming to use mainstream social media to engage with others – particularly on a topic as potentially controversial as politics.

My original intention had been to avoid social media entirely, in order to escape one of the internet’s most common problems – cyber trolls. As a vulnerable member of society, I have to protect myself with meticulous care (hence the anonymity of my blog), and diving into the shark-infested, largely uncensored waters of social media seems somewhat contradictory to this aim.

I soon realised that the appropriate security settings have the potential to negate much of the danger, albeit that this was not, at first, enough to reassure me completely. My WordPress account is set up to be pretty much impenetrable, my intention being to use it as a publishing platform rather than any kind of networking hub. No amount of care and security will change the simple fact that social media sites are not primarily designed for this purpose.

And yet I find myself needing to make social media work for me. The harsh truth is that, even in the context of my modest aspirations as to reader numbers, my blog isn’t yet receiving enough traffic to merit the effort I put in. I’ve come to realise the importance of social media as a promotional tool, and it further occurs to me that the option to quickly and easily share relevant news cuttings and other resources (which I don’t always have the time to write a full article on) has great potential value.

With all this in mind, I arrive at a small technicality which proves to be the greatest stumbling block of all; that I will, of course, need to run my social media, just like my blog, anonymously.

My biggest problem with social media is its lack of accommodation of anonymity.

Since I have some experience of personal use of the site, Facebook seemed the obvious choice of platform. This quickly turned out to be impossible, since it requires all users to register under, and publicly display, their real name. The only “solution” to my problem offered by the help section was to set up a page rather than a profile – a page, that is, that would have to be linked to my personal profile and carry my name for all the world to see.

I suspect internet safety to be the motivation behind this policy, but am unconvinced as to the necessity of such a restriction. There must, of course, be some means of accountability for those who might misuse their profile for illegal or immoral means, but I don’t understand why the knowledge of an account holder’s identity cannot be restricted to moderators only. Nor would provision for anonymity prevent the banning of deliberately misleading or offensive usernames, or the shutting down of trolling accounts, the categorisation of which depends on the content involved, not the identity of the author.

Hence I find myself on Twitter, which does allow pseudonyms. After handing over an e-mail address (fortunately I already set one up specifically for my WordPress account) I must now grapple with an unfamiliar system and a hugely restrictive character limit. And no, I didn’t make a typo – the address @autisticliberal was already taken.

The problem of lack of acceptance of anonymity is not limited to social media – it has also rendered the government’s official petition portal off-limits to me. The site requires anyone starting a petition to give their full name, which is then prominently displayed on the petition’s page where it is visible to everyone.

I should clarify that I agree with the site’s measure of requiring signatories to give their real name (published) and postcode (not published) as evidence that they are a real UK resident and/or citizen. It is highly unlikely that the addition of a person’s name to a public list of thousands of others would cause any anxiety, and this verification adds a great deal of credibility to the petition which, in itself, is a big part of the site’s appeal.

Yet to require publication of the petitioner’s name – to have it prominently singled out – strikes me as a different issue entirely. This requirement not only has the potential to deter a huge proportion of would-be petitioners, it is also especially problematic for those of us who are in any way vulnerable, or even simply shy. In other words, it is most hostile to the very people who are most susceptible to exclusion from the political dialogue and who are, by extension, those who should be most encouraged to get involved. Moreover, I can’t understand why this measure is necessary. If large numbers of UK residents are willing to support a cause, logic must surely dictate that the geographical location from which the cause originated therefore becomes irrelevant.

The thoughtless design of the system actively excludes the most vulnerable.

I don’t wish to be derogatory about my second choice – Change.org. It’s a very useful and liberatingly accessible resource. The government’s portal would, however, have been ideal for a petition I’m currently devising (more on this in the next few days), and as I am forced to turn my back on the platform over a needless privacy issue, I find myself both frustrated at the shortfalls in the government’s efforts to make political debate inclusive, and concerned at the sensation of leaving a part of my credibility behind as I go.

The bitter irony is that if I had assumed a believable false identity – if I had lied about who I was – I would be having none of these problems. (Technically I would have been in violation of user agreements, but it strikes me as highly unlikely that I would ever have been caught.) Blatantly contradictory though it may at first seem, I choose to be perfectly open about my anonymity. It is purely a measure for my own protection. It is not an attempt to deceive anyone or to do anything devious or unethical.

I resent the implication that my being anonymous means I’m doing something wrong.

Some may feel I’m making a fuss over nothing. But no difficulty gets under my skin like an unnecessary one. Quite simply, being politically active is hard. Being autistic is also hard. Being both at the same time is very hard indeed. To overcome large barriers only to be needlessly further impeded by ill-thought-out computer systems is frankly too soul-destroying to put into words.

A hundred years ago, politics was open only to the rich and well bred. Although there is still far to go, much progress has already been made towards breaking down this particular inequality. Yet now I begin to recognise another form of potential “elitism”. Without due care being taken, politics can all too easily become the exclusive territory of those with the loudest voices, thickest skins and most aggressive personalities.

As long as the threat of severe and even violent abuse remains unavoidable, politics can never be truly inclusive.

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