Outing The Online Outrage

A much-admired journalist has become the latest to be scalped via the Twitter vocalites.

He said “ABC”, his follower interpreted this as “XYZ”, retweeted the post – with his own interpretation – and the flash mob formed. Within a very short time, the newscaster fell on his own sword (forgive the excessive metaphors, I seem to be writing this in the style of hysterical tweeters) and he was gone.

Trolls, eh. What are they like? As it happens, I have recent personal experience of them.

My last blog on this site was about Meghan and Harry in which I said I did not believe she had been the subject of racial abuse. I’d say 95% of the comments on the blog as a whole were positive, while some 5% disagreed.

Those who disagreed appeared charmingly reasonable and rational in their enjoyment of a robust and open discussion (I paraphrase) while the subtext seemed to me to be pretty vitriolic and with no desire at all to engage in real debate and discussion. My professional qualifications and skills – or lack of them, they suggested – seemed to be of particular interest.

Admittedly, I may be biased but I saw their aim as to close down any discussion and just reinforce their own views through replies to conversation they “liked” with other like-minded communicators.

Debate, surely, is about discussion, exchange of ideas and the possibility of changing one’s mind.

So when did debate suddenly involve silencing your opponent? My colleague (96 Harley Psychotherapy founder psychiatrist Dr Robin Lawrence) believes it started off when David Cameron was the new boy in town and multiculturalism was very much at the forefront of politics.

I bow to his knowledge and wisdom but think it may have started even before that, perhaps with “new” Labour in 1997 and the advent of pagers, given out to the influx of MPs to ensure they were “on message” about a particular subject.

Anything politicians can do, someone else can do better. Along came Twitter in 2006 and famous people were encouraged to join and soon realised that they could plug their own interests through this amazing medium. The more followers they gained, the higher their profile and the more they could raise their earning potential. Politicians took their time to join in with PM David Cameron’s first tweet arrive in 2012. No early adopter, he.

But the social microblogging system really blossomed when the mainstream media got in on the act, looking at the “trending” stories of the day. That started off as a good idea, a good talking point but, probably because the UK media generally enjoys a good fight, it quickly became adversarial.

“Twitter STORM … FURY over …. Someone or other ENRAGED” blazed (another exaggerated word) one or other tabloid and off we all went. Who’s not going to read about that, particularly if it’s online and you don’t have to pay for a paper.

Nowadays, we are forever in uproar. No reasoned debate (longer than the 140 characters not allowed) just an exchange of insults that quickly reaches a much wider audience when national papers get involved. So what might once have been a spat between a newscaster and his follower with some 2,000 followers of his own (still following? Well done, you) becomes a national outrage.

I have to say, Twitter can’t be blamed. It’s a fun idea. A social media platform that allows us to air our views. I’m told users in the US are less hostile to each other than we are in the UK. I have a theory about this (no evidence so it’s not a scientific one) and that it’s to do with our feudal past. I wonder if we have a “follower” mentality and and are used to obeying rules. Therefore, if everyone is outraged or virtue-signalling like mad, it’s hard for us as individuals to say: “Hold on, I don’t agree.” We keep quiet and the herd moves on.

It’s a worrying trend, particularly as what used to be minority groups understood the power of social media long before traditional organisations did and now seem to be in charge of the political agenda. Identity politics gives everyone the chance to accuse their opponents of some sort of “ism” which, if denied, is still an “ism” but it’s an unconscious one. We can’t have a view, we have to take a side, and it’s got to be on the side that’s the most publicly vocal, not necessarily the one that is the most logical or well reasoned. We’ve lost our rational selves and seem to be in a permanent state of emotional hysteria.

That is not a good way to run a society. That way, as Dr Lawrence points out, madness – or least totalitarism* – lies.

I sense some hope. The backlash against the abrupt and unreasonable ending career ending of the newscaster surprised everyone, including the journalist himself and his bosses. Maybe people are beginning to understand and question the damage such public displays of outrage are doing to us all.

In the end, I feel that the twittersphere (I’m not rewarding its bad behaviour with a capital T) has become a bit like navel gazing. Unless used well and thoughtfully, it’s pointless and rather an unpleasant habit. Probably best to avoid it.

By Lulu Sinclair

Writer, journalist and qualified counsellor

*  Note the “ism” in that too.

Photos by:  Austin Distel on Unsplash

                   Merakist on Unsplash

                  Jack deMore on Unsplash