Sometimes 'people like us' make the worst internet mobs
Published 03/06/2015 | 02:30
The stoning scene from 'The Life of Brian' is a classic. For those of you who have not seen it or perhaps forget the 1979 film, the assembled crowd baying for the stoning to be carried out contains women. Only women are not allowed to be party to this form of justice. Of course, the irony is that the women are not women but Monty Python men dressed up as women with voices going up and down the vocal scale like a bad case of puberty.
It is the call of the traditionally nurturing gender for the murderous penalty that creates the humour - a juxtaposition that jars on the ear.
In Dublin last week, journalist, writer, funnyman and screenwriter Jon Ronson was speaking to a packed audience in the O'Reilly Hall about social media shaming. His new book, 'So You've been Publicly Shamed', is published by Simon & Shuster.
He had many examples but his core message was simple. It is 'people like us' who can be the most damaging. Nice, normal, liberal types who will not tolerate injustice, inequality or abuse of privilege who can be more ruthless than the average beer-swilling, gun-toting US republican with the first name Sarah and a hazy view of world geography.
Jonson argues in humorous asides that, in the name of the greater good, we are haemorrhaging democracy online at a dizzying rate.
Initially, social media was hailed as a democratising force, a force for the underdog and a force for good. The disenfranchised could and did band together and make the status quo take note. We saw early examples of corporates ignoring societal concerns but after a huge wave of online opposition, they were forced to react, to remove ads from questionable sites or stop advertisements deemed unsuitable. This was perceived as inherently positive and fundamentally democratic - literally the voice of the people overpowering the power of the corporate.
The early warning systems flagged the emergence of trolls. These keyboard warriors hid behind anonymous avatars and blasted all in their path. Certain 'types' found themselves targeted - women working in the online gaming industry, women who suffered rape, actually women who were online, mostly.
A further irony was that some of these trolls were also women, although the vast majority were men so that the few trollettes resulted in high coverage, such as in the Caroline Criado-Perez affair.
Another irony is that the anonymity so beloved by trolls is actually illusionary and if a troll crosses the line into criminal defamation, threat or abuse, they can and will be found.
In case you were wondering, Criado-Perez's online crime was to call for Jane Austen to be commemorated on UK bank notes, as the only other female present was the queen. Obviously this was a heinous aspiration and the resultant threats of rape, torture and death were a perfectly balanced response from the online crowd...not. In the end, the trolls were identified, Austen was enshrined on the £10 note and Perez has since published an inspiring women-centric book called 'Do it Like a Woman'.
The other evolving aspect that emerged with increased online activity is what might be called the social media bubble.
Previously, people might have found their news from papers or radio or television. However, with social media, people only tend to follow like-minded people. This has the impact of diluting news and in particular of reducing views to a single stream.
If I only follow people who think the same way as I do, then since my main source of news is from online platforms, I must surmise the world thinks the same way that I do.
In the same way, the social mob has latched onto another driver of behaviour - the 'like me' button. So consumption of news is linked to my views on the news. What I think about the news is also a way of labelling me and forming a group around me of similar thinkers. And all the time I am looking for approbation on the grandstanding on my views. We are all given online megaphones with neon ticks for likes. This 'like me' aspect of social media is the biggest impetus for social mobs.
Jonson quotes the unfortunate case of PR executive Justine Sacco, who made an off-colour joke to a few of her closest friends, less than 200, on Twitter.
By the time, she got off her plane in Capetown 11 hours later, her life as she knew it was over. More than a million tweets had shamed her into job loss, depression and a life overturned.
It was not trolls that did the damage but people 'like us' who had names and addresses and a real life outside the net. The mob was not wrong, her joke was inexcusable, but the severity of her shaming bore no relation whatsoever to her flippant joke.
Into this vibrant and sometimes turbulent world of social media, enter the #Marref - marriage referendum hastag - where social media was hugely powerful. On the Yes side, human interest stories dominated the timelines, reflecting the more liberal youth vote. However, over the lifetime of the campaign, lines were drawn and friends were lost. On the No side, doom and gloom was less easily shared; it is hard to counter the argument of love. And in the final result, the outpouring of joyous content had the upper hand and hankies were in constant demand. It was wonderful to see the rainbow colours dominate the social media mobs - here is a domination that we can love.