Rules of the game: Avid Reader and the hollow activism of the Men’s Rights movement

Men’s Rights Activists and soccer players have one thing in common – the slightest perceived breach has them feigning injury, as they scream to a referee who is tired of their obvious deceit.

The most recent infraction was when Avid Reader, an independent bookstore in Brisbane, shared their excitement for feminist writer Clementine Ford’s upcoming book, Boys Will Be Boys, on Facebook.

Of all the outrages in the world that occur to men, the book store’s enthusiasm caused the MRAs to drop to the ground wailing. It wasn’t enough to cry to their supporters – they needed a bigger audience for their blowout.

The group descended upon Avid Reader’s Facebook page to leave one-star reviews. Ford’s publisher, Allen & Unwin, was also targeted but didn’t receive as many reviews – possibly because the attention required to confront the world’s greatest evil was only the 60 seconds it took to write ‘You guys are insane supporting Stupid misandrists. And you have no regards for men’s rights. F*****u’.

But if it was attention the MRAs wanted, they didn’t count on the outcome.

I noticed the one-star reviews when writers Ben and Michelle Law started engaging with the trolls on Avid Reader’s page. I left a five-star review to help counteract the influx of one stars, and reached out to others in private literary networks to do the same. Turns out there are more literary supporters than MRAs.

Like any good soccer team, there are always imports brought in to add to the score. An assessment of the one-star reviews left for Avid Reader revealed many empty social media accounts, created for the express purpose of shitposting; akin to a seagull shrieking and excreting, but all over a Facebook page. More intriguing however, is that some were from people who lived overseas – with accounts from as far away as Canada, Turkey and the US.

This leads to my personal theory about MRAs: they aren’t playing in a competition, they’re playing with each other. Each negative review or supportive squawk isn’t about Clementine Ford or Avid Reader. It’s not even about feminism. It’s a gang of disempowered people shrieking into the darkness, unsure of their space in an unpredictable and changing world. Each slur is a roll-call, made to show their allegiance, a growing cry to attract attention – and hopefully others, to form a protective huddle.

In these scenarios, people like Clementine Ford become a target. While some are fixated on her, she is used like an object by people who haven’t read her work or even know her at all. Her existence is secondary to the group’s primacy and need to show they aren’t afraid at all; why, look at them attempt to shut down a local bookstore they’ve never visited to protest a book they’ve never read.

Mass platforms like Facebook act like accelerant: they enable fires that look far bigger than they actually are. The attempt to discredit Avid Reader attracted around 350 one-star reviews. The response, promoted by members of the feminist and literary communities, generated well over 4000 five-star reviews.

No matter how many imports and empty accounts they gathered, they were never going to succeed. That is not the point, though. MRAs lack the ability to build or destroy anything, because they solely exist to do two things: validate each other and make noise.

The group who attempted to ‘play dirty’ admitted as much in a Facebook post, stating:

We have decided to try a new tactic against feminism by “fighting fire with fire” by giving any business that associates with Clementine Ford one star reviews and petitioning against her publisher to not publish her second book. Some are skeptical of this, saying “you’re as bad as them for not allowing freedom of speech”. The difference is that feminist such as Clementine Ford are given free speech to spread their hatred of men, while we aren’t given any freedom of speech to even speak about male issues. Freedom of speech works both ways. Remember, we are dealing with feminists here who are incapable of dealing with reason or logic. It seems the only way they may learn is to play dirty and give them a taste of their own medicine.

What they don’t understand about the publishing industry, or freedom of speech (which has no provision in Australian law), they make up for in campaign tactics: using online platforms like Facebook to encourage activist momentum.

There’s a difference between campaigns and campaign tactics: one is a war, and the other a weapon. Their inability to generate an equal amount of protest on both Avid Reader and Allen & Unwin’s Facebook pages shows that MRAs are incapable of campaigns, and will always be outnumbered by the people fighting back.

It’s a mistake, however, to view the recent stoush as a win for anyone; we’re not playing the same game. Avid Reader was a field for the feminist and literary community to play as a team against MRAs. The number of reviews might be seen as a win, but the MRAs were never playing for that trophy. They didn’t even kick the ball. They just came out to scream about their pretend injuries.

And it’s never been easier for them to find other people to join them.

This is evident to Mark Zuckerberg, who is currently attempting to style himself as a milquetoast politician as he tours America, visiting factories and staging awkward photos.  In a recent speech, he likened Facebook groups to a new kind of church, with group admins acting like pastors to their flock, where everyone feels ‘that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are not alone’.  He also revealed Facebook’s new artificial intelligence function which recommends relevant groups to users, leading to a 50% rise in group memberships.

It’s appropriate to view churches and groups as the same here – both enjoy abuse, secrecy, exclusion and freedom from legal consequences as part of their remit, thanks to the benevolence of a distant father figure.

The scary aspect of this story isn’t that Zuckerberg believes community groups, including those who promote hate, are the new church communities: ‘bring[ing] the world closer together’. It is that he can make a speech about groups and invest in artificial intelligence prompts without mentioning moderation.

Facebook does have an AI system to deal with hate speech, but it requires greater sophistication than one which promotes related misogyny groups to MRAs. A recent post in their newsroom highlights the challenges they’ve faced in providing automatic moderation tools that can manage outright hate speech, nuanced speech and globally diverse laws on the matter.

It’s easier to make a speech about how your AI has massively boosted group membership than the fact you can’t moderate the hate speech that happens in those groups. Or that your company has committed to hiring an additional 3000 moderators to the pool of 4500 existing workers, which still isn’t enough to manage two billion users where a paltry 66 000 hate mail posts are removed per week in a system that still won’t release its full moderation guidelines (but were recently leaked in part).

Mark Zuckerberg’s partyless political posturing and Facebook’s role as the largest censor in the world without regulatory obligations are the same: neither are accountable or transparent. It’s a bunch of empty words in empty performances while ignoring the real impact of the world it’s helped create and connect.


Image: Tug of war / toffehoff

Amy Gray

Amy Gray is a Melbourne-based writer, regularly published by The Age and The Guardian. She often covers feminism, media and digital culture.

More by Amy Gray ›

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  1. While I probably agree with your comments about MRA I will never find out because of the fuckwitted myopic prejudice of your opening sentence. Well done.

      1. Which goes to show that you don’t have to identify as a MRA to act like one. Nice post. Look out for trolls.

    1. If such an uninformed broad-brush denigration is “spot on” then that does not auger well for the authority of the author in terms of their main subject. One wonders why those codes of football which are far more deeply entwined in masculine displays of violence did not enter the author’s mind as more appropriate to her topic?

  2. You seem a bit bigoted toward the MRA group. You judge them harshly based on trolling by their least eloquent members without any discussion of their beliefs. I think the technical term is confirmation bias.

  3. While I may not agree with Ian’s wording, I do agree with the sentiment. Perhaps Men’s Rights sounds like a silly term in what we often refer to as patriarchal society, and often the term is used to justify misogynist rhetoric, but how easy is it for women, or anyone, to get away with making gendered statements that make unfair assumptions about men? Prejudice is a two sided coin. And you can’t fight prejudice with prejudice.

  4. Yes prejudice is a two sided coin…apartheid, slavery, holocaust…yep all 2 sided.
    Great work Amy thoughtful and perceptive exploration of the events of the past week.

  5. Thanks for your fantastic article, Amy. It seems you too have drawn the wrath of the manbabies judging by some comments here.

  6. An interesting article on how hate groups work, but I was disappointed that you included “churches” as an easy target. Please . Not all churches are the same, not all churches have had major problems with paedophiles.

  7. “I left a five-star review to help counteract the influx of one stars, and reached out to others in private literary networks to do the same.”

    Huzzah, that’ll show them! Keep fighting the brave fight, on the frontlines of the cultural wars. Those who in past times wielded the pen against the sword could have never even dreamed of the might of the keyboard.

    1. Come on dude. The one star review tactic is designed to attack the revenue of an organization, by tilting the average review score to oblivion. Its entirely appropriate to respond with a 5 to assist in mitigating that damage. For a small business like a book store, getting review bombed can be devestating, so the community helping out with a 5 is commendable.

  8. Bwaaa Ha Ha! They post on FACEBOOK that they have no freedom of speech?! These guys and conservative christians – they own the world and still want to behave like an oppressed minority when someone disagrees! Wow!

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