Saturday 24 August 2019

Don't fear keyboard warriors - we should pity them instead

The last few weeks have shown that Irish people are fuming, writes Donal Lynch, and our own mob now runs the show

Sometimes Twitter seems to be the repository of all anger in this country. Stock Image: Getty Images
Sometimes Twitter seems to be the repository of all anger in this country. Stock Image: Getty Images
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The Light House cinema in Dublin put 1970s classic Network on again recently. I took a friend who had never seen it. When they got to that famous scene where Howard Beale urges his viewers to go to the window and scream "I'm mad as hell and I can't take it any more" she turned to me and whispered "that's pretty much what's happening now".

Except, instead of a stormy night we have Twitter to scream into. It is the repository of all anger in this country. We now know that recent rage high points - water charges, austerity - were nothing compared to 2017 rage, which comes in several intense flavours. There is Repeal Rage which causes the sufferer to use laughable pretexts to attack the other side - witness Colm O'Gorman being attacked last week by pro-lifers over Al Porter once fundraising for Amnesty International.

There is #MeToo rage - an anti-bullying campaign which has proven itself to be remorselessly vindictive and eager for the complete and instant destruction of every man accused.

Then there is toxic male rage - exemplified by Barry Walsh, who called various female politicians 'bitches' on Twitter and was uniquely hard to pity since he was so thoroughly of the angry mob himself.

Even people who are not trolls in the true sense seem to be casually, constantly fuming online and simply staying off Twitter - which used to be the advice given to those who can't handle the anger - isn't really an option now.

In Network, the rage was somewhat impotent - the mob is soon placated with more light entertainment - but today the anger actually gets things done.

It has driven men out of public life on the strength of allegations and terrified female public figures, who are more likely to get rape and death threats. It has emboldened a whole new generation of vigilantes. It has encouraged several celebrities to commit career-ending rants to videotape. It has caused one UK politician to commit suicide. It is more powerful than any lobby or special interest. It has reached into the office of the Taoiseach and made a mockery of media law.

Our online anger has real consequences in the real world. Twitter just shrugs its shoulders but maybe it's time for the rest of us to ask where this anger comes from.

For it to get to the level it's at it had to have festered. And all of the different things that get us raging online have their roots in real-life problems; revolutions happen because nothing is done for too long. The hunger for more and more high-profile sexual harassment scalps probably comes from the fact that it's still so difficult to do anything about sexual harassment at the moment.

The victim is invariably startled, frightened and wondering if it's worth making a scene. Then they go away and nurse their wrath. Until Twitter, that wrath generally had nowhere to go. Only about 5pc of sexual assault cases are ever successfully prosecuted in Irish courts.

So people get away with awful things. And when that goes on, enough anger builds that people suddenly aren't bothered about due process, fairness or proportionality. Careers are finished on the strength of an allegation and the #MeToo mob bays for more blood.

Repeal Rage is the acceptable way for middle-class people to get angry. And like #MeToo it is the product of decades of seething at the patriarchy. The gateway drug to Repeal Rage was Same Sex Marriage fury and whetted the mob's appetite for the downfall of Kevin Myers, so the marriage referendum has emboldened outrage merchants to do their worst in the run-up to the abortion referendum.

Both sides of the issue are replete with anonymous accounts that launch ad hominem attacks on the other. Debate nearly never happens.

Nastiness and anonymity are the order of the day. When we do finally vote on the issue next year a lot of trolls are going to have to find something else to do with their lives. Perhaps some of them can fall back into Toxic Male rage which has always been a mainstay of Twitter for years.

It's almost as though the small advances of feminism have been met by the impotent fury of a billion angry men.

Barry Walsh, who resigned from Fine Gael's Executive Council last week, thought that it was OK to call women politicians bitches and got his comeuppance, but the interesting thing was that it took him slagging off women in his own party for anything to get done. He'd actually been using the same kind of language for a long time towards women from other parties and nobody paid much attention. We are inured. His squeaks of anger were eventually met with a public feeding on a grand scale as the virtual mob tore him limb from limb.

The common theme through all of these types of rage is that they are probably only superficially about the issues they attach to. Caring about abortion rights or sexual assault victims or politicians being spoken to harshly doesn't fully explain the sheer scale of the venom.

Nobody could confuse what we are seeing with an outpouring of compassion. A more likely explanation is that Twitter itself is altering how we get angry. It has the immediacy of shouting at the TV screen and it is a way we can shout when there is nobody to shout at.

It makes us angry because we feel the people on the other end are machines and not real. And it makes us angry because even though it seems to be about communication, it's actually about isolation.

Most of us have spent the best part of our adult lives immersed in the internet now. It is the vast unspoken addiction that permeates society. It causes us to live in little echo chamber bubbles where our views are mirrored back at us. And social media is one of the factors that contributes to rising loneliness.

This might be why everyone is apoplectic on Twitter. Anger is one of the most common ways of expressing loneliness, and rage, many studies show, is the most predominant emotion expressed on social media.

Celebrities and journalists lead the mob, which is always in the market for a new victim. When a vampire squid gets caught in hooks the other squid tear it apart in chunks until nothing remains. That's what Irish Twitter is like now.

What will end the orgy of indignation? It surely won't be the satisfaction of another result - you already sense that no amount of sacrificial sex pests or dethroned icons will quench the thirst for blood.

But maybe Twitter users might do well to remember that the more vicious the internet pile on is, the sadder the lives of the people who drive it.

Instead of fearing the mob, it's time to feel a little pity for it. Remember it thinks nobody is listening to it. Remember it thinks that tearing things down is as valuable as building things up. Remember its anger is really just pain, disguised.

Above all, whatever happens, don't meet its rage with more rage.

To paraphrase Howard Beale, the rest of us might be mad as hell, but we can't take any more.

Sunday Independent

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