Tuesday 28 July 2015

Tweeting the life out of our culture

After the fuss about Niamh Horan's article last week on 
women's rugby, perhaps it's time we awoke to the dangers of trial by Twitter

Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30

Niamh Horan in the front row of the scrum with Fiona Spillane, Lisa Callander, Ali Bird and Aoife Maher
Niamh Horan in the front row of the scrum with Fiona Spillane, Lisa Callander, Ali Bird and Aoife Maher

Turn your back for two minutes nowadays and there's a storm on Twitter. Usually it's about something someone said or wrote, which has caused 'offence'. People are outraged and incensed and demanding all kinds of consequences for the accused. People you know will start to tell you all about it, or send you links to posts and Tweets and what-not. Then, as often as not, the 'controversy' will erupt into the 'mainstream media', which will prosecute the offender with the same enthusiasm as the tweeters and trolls.

I don't 'do' Twitter, but last Sunday afternoon, people started telling me there was a 'massive controversy' about something Niamh Horan had written about some women's rugby team. I have no interest in rugby, regardless of who is playing, so hadn't read the piece.

The main complaint, I gathered, was the way the female rugby players had been portrayed as the kind of women who wear make-up and fake tan. There was something on the charge sheet about 'sexualising female rugby' and 'stereotyping' women who play it.

On Monday and Tuesday, several columnists in a once serious newspaper entered the fray, attacking the article and its author in trenchant terms.

By the time I got around to checking things out, I'd become convinced that Niamh Horan had written something truly egregious. Then I read the article, and found it a harmless piece of tongue-in-cheek doodling around the experience of being in a scrum with a bunch of young women who were fit in more senses than one.

The article had elements of the risqué and the piss-take, but it was not disrespectful to the women involved. Only the most perverse reading of the article could have found anything objectionable in it.

I don't have any particular reason to defend Niamh, who in any case is well able to defend herself. Four months ago, I got dropped into the middle of a not dissimilar tsunami after an interview I did with Niamh following an earlier controversy involving Twitter and a cast of decidedly toxic trolls who had been tearing me apart for weeks.

In the course of the interview, Niamh asked me several times if I had become 'depressed' or 'suicidal' during this experience, and, to move our conversation on to what I thought its true purpose, I made some dismissive response, which I did not intend as a definitive expression of my view on what is called depression.

Nor did I anticipate that this throwaway response would get into print. It did, however, whereupon the Twitter mob mobilized itself once more. Within minutes of the article hitting the internet, journalists from newsrooms and serious current affairs programmes were calling me to say that I was trending on Twitter and what did I have to say? I got calls from RTÉ, Newstalk, even the BBC. Would I like to come on and discuss my views on depression?

For many years I'd been writing about suicide, despair, fear, anxiety, addiction and sadness, but had never received such invitations. Now, suddenly, because I was trending on Twitter, the BBC wanted to interview me.

Twitter, Jeremy Paxman said recently, is 'an activity for people who have got nothing going on in between their ears, or nothing going on in their lives'. Amen.

The 'content' of Twitter is mainly the top-of-the-head ejaculations of people who just haven't turned out to be as important or as influential as they hoped. Mostly, they just engage in high-fives with other users in celebration of their perfectly symmetrical opinions, but occasionally they plunge into an orgy of indicting and shaming someone they perceive as claiming immunity to their edicts and prescriptions.

Twitter has become a populist court in which dissenters from approved thinking are put on trial so that tweeters can defend their puny belief-systems and reassure themselves of their power.

The attacks generally take the form of selective denunciations for breaches of politically correct decrees. Usually, you find that (as with the Niamh Horan article) what has actually been said or written by the scape-goated individual bears little resemblance to what is outlined on the Twitter charge-sheet.

Last year, in a comparison with 25 other countries, Ireland was found to be a world-leader in cyber-bullying and web hate-mongering, with Irish teenagers recording four times the average European level of lasting damage.

Protesting democracy and free speech, the intelligent world appears determined to downplay the menace of online ugliness. There is a line, however, beyond which any human freedom turns into its opposite, and this is manifestly occurring with social network sites and below-the-line commentaries on newspapers, blogsites and other online media outlets.

This week yet again, following the death of Robin Williams, the world has been sickened by the unspeakable cruelty of a section of the online community, with trolls abusing the dead actor's daughter and posting a digitally altered photograph purporting to show his dead body.

The principal characteristics of the vast majority of internet commentary are sadism, narcissism, envy, self-obsession, psychopathy and cowardice. It is incontrovertibly established that the conditions of disinhibition and dissociation associated with online activity cause people to become crueller, nastier, ruder, more aggressive and more unpleasant than in 'real life'.

Anonymity has long been blamed, but even when posters make their identities known, there is often little improvement. It appears that the culture of the web is already laid down, and will not be changed significantly other than by regulation enforced by meaningful sanctions.

What's really troubling about all this is the extent to which the mainstream media appear to hang upon every word tapped out in tiny bites by the tiniest of minds.

Why should anyone, let alone an entire society, take seriously what a bunch of disenchanted idlers have to say to each other while they sit in their sad garrets contemplating their own uselessness? Yet, the so-called 'mainstream media' insist upon elevating this nonsense to the level of news.

One explanation is that, due to budgetary constraints, broadcast programmes are now for the most part being produced and researched by poorly-trained yellowpacks who, having pursued something loosely termed 'media studies' under some desiccated wreck of a Marxist failed journalist, appear to believe that their job is to put on trial anyone who offends against the tenets of a shared but undeclared manifesto for dragging Ireland back to 1968.

I finally twigged this when they came after me last April. Depression isn't really one of the listed 'revolutionary' issues, but it is certainly something on which there exists divergence of highly exercised and emotive opinion. Ergo, the perfect conditions to rustle up a flash lynch-mob.

Twitter has been compared to the ancient art of green biro correspondence, once the scourge of journalists and editors. But the similarities are superficial. Green, to be sure, was the favoured colour of the obsessive and the crank, and very often the emerald epistle was anonymous.

But no editor ever read a screed in green from start to finish: a glance was all it merited before it was gliding towards the bin. Nowadays, news editors put the equivalent close to the top of their news priorities.

Moreover, because the internet babble is now feeding intravenously into the mainstream of our public conversation, its reductive memes are contaminating our collective thought and expression patterns in ways that, by definition, are immune to reasoned and considered critique. Increasingly, quantities like irony, paradox and even harmless mischief are being pushed out of our public discourse, supplanted by shrillness, viciousness and literalism.

In the new dispensation, there is no room for lightness or complexity or waywardness or constructive confusion, only the narrow mindset of the mob. The risk and openness is squeezed out of public debate, leaving no space for the droll, the flippant or the deadpan.

In such a culture, people get more cautious about what they say and how they say it, allowing the tweeters to drag everything down to their own pathetic level.

Sunday Independent

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