The trouble with Twitter
There are a lot of things wrong, and a lot of things right, with our developing culture of social media anonymity. It gives people freedom, both to say things that are dangerous and to say things they’d never dare in real life. It’s good for whistle-blowing, for puncturing pomposity, for passing around banned news, for circumventing the normal channels of power and information and for releasing the darkest, smelliest psychoses that lurk in the human heart, just waiting for an opportunity to break out and follow the salivating crowd into death threats, sexual abuse and other choice bits of behaviour that characterise this bit of the web. (Don’t make me say Twittersphere. Please.)
But there’s something else that Twitter is very, very good for; there’s nothing like a cry of ‘cyber-bullying!’ to get the public back on your side.
This has been made extremely clear in recent days by the (latest) storm surrounding Louise Mensch, the Tory MP who’s been in every bit of the press that will have her, vocally defending Rupert Murdoch’s suitability to run a media empire. After her day of cheerleading for News International Mensch suffered a barrage of particularly nasty abuse on Twitter, most of it referring, in some way or other, to her gender. Threats of sexual violence, allusions to prostitution, comments about her appearance, the usual sub-cortical vomiting you get from angry trolls when a woman opens her mouth to do something other than suck cock. But rather than take it lying down (fnarrrr) she favourited the worst of the lot and started a whole new conversation about misogyny on Twitter.
Now I am not, of course, condoning the way these lumpen halfwits carry on (plenty has been written about that; try the Telegraph or the Guardian if you’re interested). I’m more interested in Mensch’s response, in which she began tossing the hashtag #feminism around. This excellent blog post effectively explains what a clever strategy this is; by placing herself in the position of a victim needing the protection of her feminist sisters, Mensch has got us talking about the mean and nasty cyber-bullies on the mean and nasty interweb instead of why she’s so supportive of Murdoch.
Now I have met Louise Mensch. Many years ago, when she was still a chick lit novelist and I’d written a book on marriage (yet another shameless plug there), we were pitted against each other on Woman’s Hour. It was the first time I’d done any media and I was terrified. Although I was meant to be the hard-bitten feminist and she was meant to be the romantic writer, those four minutes (and the half hour of, as it turned out, entirely spurious ‘sisterly support’ she gave me in the green room beforehand) made it very clear which of us was tougher. I think it would take more than a bunch of mouth-breathers on Twitter to knock her off-kilter. But her adoption of #feminism has drawn outpourings of support great enough to distract a lot of people from her love-in with Murdoch.
What this latest episode in Menschgate makes clear is just how useful it can be when Twitter turns against you. Samantha Brick was a jaw-dropping joke until she became the object of social media hatred, and then the tide turned and she morphed into a victim of abuse; abuse by the Mail and abuse by evil people online, and her original article, which was astonishing for so many reasons, became just one part of a larger story.
Now I’m not suggesting that one deluded journalist assuming no one likes her because she’s drop-dead gorgeous (when actually no one likes her because she’s clearly pathologically narcissistic and hates everybody else) is the same as an elected official going out of her way to defend the business practices of a mogul who has a significant influence on British political life, and whose corporation is being proven to habitually employ practices both illegal and unethical. But as the object of Twitter’s rage, Brick was the victim of something horrible rather than the perpetrator. This is relevant because this same woman who was so badly treated and whose humiliation was her publisher’s fault rather than her own (a suggestion I don’t disagree with, by the way) just recently took to the digital airwaves to spit some abuse at Mary Beard, the marvellous Cambridge don whose physical appearance should by all rights be out of the reach of snivelling little Mail writers. Brick clearly has some issues with other women, and this catty, bitchy obsession with female appearance is not, as I think we all know by now, socially healthy. Yet by the end of her ‘don’t hate me because I’m beautiful’ episode Brick had gone from a woman who hates other women to a poor poppet who was the victim of online rage.
Similarly, Jan Moir; after her despicable 2009 article about the death of the pop singer Stephen Gately, Moir was roundly attacked online, which soon led to her phone number and address being publicly posted and a wave of disturbing threats and mass (typed) aggression. Those responses were not, of course, okay, but the round-up to that episode was that Moir got to call herself the victim of a vicious, planned campaign and a ‘roaring ball of hate fire’, and to be supported and sympathised with instead of castigated for some seriously vile homophobic insinuations.
Is it a coincidence that all these cases involve women? I think not. Casual misogyny is so easy and so prevalent on the internet that instances like these, which are horribly clear cut and excessive, give us all a chance to get outraged and feel good about ourselves. As the KONY2012 campaign illustrated so well, this low-level, unthinking click-activism is what the internet does best. How many of those getting their proverbial feminist knickers in a twist over people being horrible to Louise Mensch are equally pissed off about, say, female circumcision? Or the fact that London’s childcare costs are a third higher than the national average and its maternal employment levels are the lowest in the UK?
People say and do objectionable things, and these merit reactions and they merit rage. But the herd mentality of the internet, and particularly of Twitter, is such that these responses escalate to a point that puts saintly, outraged victimhood easily within the original offender’s reach. Some, like Mensch, are savvy enough to make this happen themselves; others, like Brick, are buffeted about by storms of internet opinion but manage to come out on top. It’s the rest of us who lose, when public discourse gets boiled down to 140-character decisions on whether someone is good or bad. Who needs Rupert Murdoch when we do it to ourselves?