Friday 22 November 2019

#BEWARE Surviving social media... online assassins who lurk in shadows

For many of us, it's impossible to imagine life without Facebook and Twitter. But there's a dark side to social media and lives are being wrecked.

Paddy Manning pictured at his home in Johnswell Co. Kilkenny. Picture: Dylan Vaughan.
Paddy Manning pictured at his home in Johnswell Co. Kilkenny. Picture: Dylan Vaughan.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames outside Leinster House. Photograph: David Conachy
Justine Sacco.
Lindsat Stone.
Social media scandal: Labour Senator Lorraine Higgins at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
John Meagher

John Meagher

On Monday morning, Paddy Manning appeared as a guest on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme. As a gay man who does not support same-sex marriage, his opinions are often sought on the airwaves. After all, he says, not many gay people who share his views are willing to put their heads above the parapet.

The very name 'Paddy Manning' is enough for some to launch a Twitter broadside, and during and after his appearance on the radio show, the tweets came in droves.

They're mild tweets compared to the sort of invective that Manning receives most days, but one would need to have a strong temperament not to be affected by such a constant stream of criticism and ridicule. "I let it go over my head as much as I can," he says. "The irony is that some of the people who abuse me most are those same nice liberal people who seek things like gay marriage. So much for freedom of speech.

"And I'm not talking about a robust difference of opinion, which I've no problem with: I've been subjected to death threats and that's something I have to take seriously because my mother is living with me."

Manning says he would be enjoying a much quieter life if he had kept his opinions to himself, but concedes that there's no going back now. "I've had gay people tell me they share my view but are petrified to go public because they see the sort of reaction I get, and then there are others who have the polar opposite opinion, but tell me they are saddened that I can't express a viewpoint without being torn asunder for it."#

See more on the Irish Independent's #BEWARE series here

Justine Sacco.
Justine Sacco.

Senator Lorraine Higgins has experienced her fair share of vitriolic messages on Twitter, Facebook and online comment boards. Last month, after an appearance on RTE's Prime Time in which she defended the jailing of water charge protesters, she received a series of vicious tweets and messages, including the hate-filled Facebook post that can be viewed as a smartphone screen-grab on the cover of Weekend Review.

"It really upset me, to be honest," she recalls. "It's such threatening language and so misogynistic too. Presumably it is a grown man sending this to me? It's nearly always men. With so much of the abuse I get is misogynistic in nature, is it any wonder that women are put off entering politics?"

She says gardaí are currently looking into the matter. "I have to take a threat like that seriously, although of course some people will say that I am just courting attention. I'd ask them how they would feel if they received a message threatening to rip their head off.

"And it's not just me that's affected. My family have seen the c-words and the stuff about how I should have been aborted and that's very upsetting for them. My father asked me the other day if a life in politics was really worth this sort of abuse."

Lindsat Stone.
Lindsat Stone.

The viciousness of social media is among the subject matter of the latest book from bestselling author Jon Ronson. So You've Been Publicly Shamed looks at how a mob mentality has irrevocably changed Twitter for the worse.

Every day, a new social media 'villain' comes along and is attacked by the herd, often for something as simple as an ill-thought-out tweet.

Read more: ‘I refuse to look at social media because of abusive messages’ – RTE’s Claire

Ronson interviews several ordinary members of the public who had their lives turned upside down as a result of a badly-phrased joke on social media.

Take Justine Sacco. Formerly a New York-based PR director, she lost her job and much of her self-confidence after a tweet, in which she quipped that she hoped she wouldn't get Aids on a trip to South Africa, went viral.

Sacco posted the tweet to her 170 followers shortly before boarding a flight at Heathrow and, on landing 11 hours later, she was the number one global trend on Twitter. Not only did she have to contend with a deluge of shockingly abusive messages, but local police warned that she had compromised her own safety too.

The Justine Sacco that Ronson meets more than a year later seems utterly broken as she ponders a nightmarish future in which her misdemeanour is preserved forever online. Potential jobs and relationships, she says, could wither thanks to a simple Google search.

A similarly bleak vista is in prospect for Lindsey Stone, a young US care worker, who allowed herself to be photographed giving a middle finger gesture in front of a 'silence and respect' sign at Arlington Military Cemetery. Not thinking about the consequences, she posted the image on Facebook where, like Sacco's tweet, it went viral.

Not only was she inundated with abusive messages, threatening rape and murder, but the agency she worked for was pestered to fire her. Within a couple of days, she was summoned to her workplace, where she was instantly dismissed. She tells Ronson that she spent the following 12 months holed up at her parents' house, barely able to step outdoors such was the shame that consumed her.

Those seeking an Irish equivalent would not need to look much further than Patrick Nulty, who was an independent TD for Dublin West until his resignation last March.

Nulty's political career crashed to earth when it was revealed that he had sent a sexually charged message on Facebook to a 17-year-old schoolgirl. He subsequently said he had consumed alcohol at the time and didn't realise the recipient of the message was quite so young.

Today, he is preparing to undertake a PhD in economics and is said to be in good spirits, although worries of future job prospects stalk him occasionally.

Read more: 'You have to give cyberspace the same respect you would give to a live microphone'

He keeps the same group of friends and socialises much the same as always - he has not, it's believed, become a recluse as some tabloids suggested last year. He is said to deeply regret sending the message - "have u ever been spanked?" - and no longer engages with social media. One of his first actions post-scandal was to shut down his Facebook page.

He politely turns down an interview request, and points out that in the wake of his resignation, he received advice not to talk to the media, to keep his name out of the papers.

But such an outlook is at odds with that of Max Mosley, the motor racing supremo, who chose to address, head-on, the News of the World expose that he had partaken in a Nazi-themed sex orgy. He successfully sued the newspaper for the Nazi slur (particularly pointed considering his father was British fascist leader Oswald Mosley), but appeared happy to talk about his sexual proclivities.

In So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson argues that Mosley's refusal to run to ground was the very thing that helped him to diffuse the situation he found himself in - and it might be salient advice for those, like Nulty, who find themselves in the eye of a storm.

It was an approach taken by Senator Fidelma Healy Eames this week. After being roundly criticised for a provocative tweet in which she hoped Mother's Day would still be celebrated in an Ireland in which the same-sex marriage bill had been passed, she attempted to clarify her views in numerous media interviews.

Meanwhile, Lorraine Higgins has been forced to close down a Facebook page in the hope that she can stem the flow of abusive messages. "I've also turned off notifications for Twitter on my phone," she says. "There's only so many times you can accept being called a c*** or a whore, although I admit that I've become somewhat desensitised to these words: they're thrown at me so often."

Higgins is hoping to see legislation introduced to make such abusive messages a criminal offence. "At the moment, it's a free-for-all online and traditional social mores are going out the window. And one thing that's particularly disturbing about this is the fact that some people involved in political parties seem happy to engage in this vile abuse as well."

Read more: 'One sordid, gross and offensive comment must have been thought up while he sat there scratching himself in his grey fading jocks. I wonder what makes people think it's acceptable to make comments like that?'

Paddy Manning says he does not want to be seen as a victim and will continue to share his views online and off it, even if that invites yet more hostility. "I am entitled to my opinion," he says. "I abhor the way some people feel it has no validity."

A former farmer and now self-employed in his native Kilkenny, Manning believes it is just as well he isn't looking for a job. "A lot of employers wouldn't touch me with a barge pole," he says. "It's not just the fact that my views don't fit into the neat contemporary liberal agenda, but I'm not sure they would want to employ someone who attracts such negative commentary."

Jon Ronson argues that social media will become yet more dysfunctional if it doesn't police itself better. He says so-called 'feedback loops' - which would provide Twitter and Facebook users with real-time warnings on their behaviour - might make people stop and reconsider that tweet or Facebook post before pressing send.

"We see ourselves as nonconformist," he writes. "But I think all of this [aggression on social media] is creating a more conformist, conservative age. We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside it."

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