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Ian O'Doherty: The Net's virtual lynch mob is addicted to outrage

So, here was one: "To have a journalist stirring up hatred doesn't do anyone any favours and after reading this I fear for the safety of Dublin's drug users, but I guess Ian wouldn't be bothered if one consequence of his article meant that a drug user was seriously assaulted or even killed."

Now, here's another one: "We also got angry reading Mr O'Doherty's ugly Nazi-like opinions, however it makes us even more angry realizing how this fanatic of a mad journalist gets his inflammatory and hatred wordings published widely by a national newspaper."

And one more for good luck: "As a person who uses drugs I find the language in the article offensive. This clearly breaches the spirit of Principle 8 of the Press Complaints Newspaper Code of Practise on on prejudice. I call for a retraction, unconditional apology and an investigation by the Press Council. This type of bigotry has no place in a serious newspaper. Its publication is an inditement (sic) of both the author and the Independent's editors."

Okay class, can you guess what the three examples above all have in common, apart from being completely mad and hysterical?

But first a little background...

Last Friday I wrote a column about an Irish doctor and addiction expert who advocated adopting an American-style policy where junkies were offered the opportunity to have voluntary sterilisations.

I used that as a hook and then gave out about junkies for the next few hundred words.

And, several hundred emails later, it would appear that I am somewhat to the right of Hitler and have been openly compared to the aforementioned Adolf, Stalin, Goebbels and Mao.

But back to the question at the start -- what do those three random examples of the correspondence I received have in common?

They were all from foreign countries: the first was English; the second was from the brilliantly named Danish Drug Users Union (I'd give anything to see the minutes of one of their meetings: "What do we want? More drugs! When do we want them? Now!); and the third was French.

They all huddled angrily in my email inbox, poking their little electronic fingers at me every time I looked in, jostling for prominence amongst almost exactly similarly worded emails from New Zealand, Canada, America and Brazil.

Who knew the Indo had such a loyal foreign following?

Who knew that I, the hack who's not even a household name in my own household, could provoke such strong international condemnation?

But, you see, it was nothing to do with me, or the Indo, or anything else for that matter. It was all about the power of the internet.

Because we have now replaced regular lynch mobs with virtual ones; mobs that get in touch with each other through networking sites and then compete to see who can be the most outraged, the most offended, the most horrified and hurt.

I even received a few emails from people telling me that they had lost relatives in the Holocaust because of people like me.

Now, as any regular reader will know, I'm unashamedly pro-Israeli and a student of the Holocaust, so that line particularly resonated with me -- what sort of person would equate offering a voluntary service to addicts to the death camps of Central and Eastern Europe?

And the answer is obvious -- someone who had not, in fact, lost any relatives in Auschwitz, Treblinka or Chelmno; just someone who thought that by invoking the darkest moment in human history they could establish their credentials as someone who is morally superior to everyone else.

It's a fairly reprehensible thing to do, when you think about it. After all, some things are beyond standard invocation.

I don't mind the comparisons with Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin and Mao, they're obviously the deranged ramblings of dribbling mad people who like to engage in insane hyperbole, but when you start to bring the Shoah into your argument you're crossing into totally different and extremely dodgy territory.

The irony in all this, of course, is that the vast majority of emails I received from Ireland were actually in praise of the piece. They were written by the real victims of drug addiction -- the families.

But those were quickly swamped by the electronic mob, who organised an orchestrated campaign to have me sacked and, according to one particularly interesting mentaller, I was to be prosecuted for Incitement to Hatred.

An example of this irrationality and profound illogic can be seen in the first example at the top of the page: "I guess Ian wouldn't be bothered if one consequence of his article meant that a drug user was seriously assaulted or even killed."

Come again?

Does anyone in their right mind honestly think that because of something I wrote, there will suddenly appear on Irish streets marauding gangs of anti-drug vigilantes baying for junkie blood?

Look, I can barely motivate myself to get out of bed most mornings, so the idea that I can simply rustle up a mob to do my bidding is as ludicrous as it is strangely flattering.

But no, in the world of the electronic waste land, logic comes second to irrational feeling, where being offended is more important than actually reading a piece and seeing that at no point did I, or indeed would I ever, call for the enforced sterilisation of any section of society.

But that, you see, doesn't angry up the blood quite as well as deliberately misinterpreting something does.

Ah, what a wonderful world.

iodoherty@independent.ie

Irish Independent