A message to the mob: behave on social media as you would in real life | Penny Anderson

Many people disagreed with an piece I wrote on HMV, but the abuse I got on Twitter was distressing and isolating

I love social media, I really do. I relish any opportunity to interact with people I may never meet in person, strangers with similar interests. Sadly, I am usually boring, sharing articles, posting about social issues, art, occasionally music and, increasingly, ornithology. I have relatively few followers and do not actively seek more by being self-consciously “witty”. I follow only those I know or find interesting. If I consider someone to be a septic pustule (Donald Trump, for example) why would I follow them when I would walk away if they joined my mates in a pub? I’ve made friends, have even met some in person: social media has provided an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Recently, however, that changed. An article I had written went live at 4pm. By 6pm I realised a storm was brewing. Notified by Twitter (which mercifully and to my surprise did a great job) I applied all suggested filters, locking my account just in time to shield myself from the worst of the personal and spiteful abuse. Even so, still I felt isolated; as if I was buried beneath a pile of manure. It was intimidating when men (yes, it was mostly men) with few friends but a keen interest in wrestling requested to follow me.

I’m not going to get in to the rights or wrongs of what I wrote. It was my opinion, based on years working in various roles in the music world. Others are entitled to their own. But what followed was horrible. And it wasn’t a surprise.

We can sometimes forget just how weird social media is. Twitter is as if the whole world is watching the main stage at Glastonbury, live streaming headliners on TV. Suddenly, a random guy walks onstage. To a rapt and silent audience, he announces: “Here’s a picture of my lovely cat. I like cheese. That woman is quite ugly and that man there deserves to die.” Emboldened by some applause he then suggests the weather is nasty but it’s misheard as Nazi and suddenly the entire crowd is hurling bottles of piss at him. As he cries, the crowd jeers.

Out in the real world, people mostly walk on by. Occasionally, they smile. Having multiple sclerosis impairs my mobility. Once a week at least, strangers shout at me saying I’m fake and don’t need my walking stick. When two women blocked my path, then swore after I politely asked them to let me pass, I was sanguine. And today, when a woman complimented me on my clothes at the supermarket till, I thanked her. People in the real world are generally all right, occasionally nasty but often unexpectedly lovely. That is magnified online. Look around you when next in a crowd. Most people will be fantastic. I’d say 3% might be utterly vile. That small percentage now has access to abuse whoever they please.

Years ago I interviewed CEOPs (child exploitation online protection command), when the internet was new. They discussed an obvious and self-evident truth. Online connections permit behaviour previously deemed reprehensible to become acceptable, as those with similar deplorable interests find each other online and encourage each other.

The day my piece went live, people I have never met and do not follow but respected from a distance, piled in. Others, including Women In Journalism defended me, and Stuart Braithwaite of the band Mogwai gallantly appealed for calm.

A well-known musician acquaintance kindly contacted me privately to say: “As with road rage the best thing you can do is get out of the situation as far and quietly as possible, without engaging anyone (tempting though that may be) and go off and enjoy something in life that is rewarding.”

They were right. A redeeming part of what has been personally a difficult few years has been my growing interest in birding, which has taught me that corvids attack and mob other vulnerable wounded birds. Welcome to the internet. The comedian Stewart Lee beautifully describes Twitter as “the stasi for the Angry Birds generation”.

When the pack next attacks, remember there’s a person beneath all that manure. I am appalled by the real-life actions of various public figures who are widely lambasted – even threatened – online, but were they to suffer harm and be utterly destroyed we, as a species, will have failed. Behave on social media as you would in real life. Imagine you are queueing at a bus stop.

If you found yourself part of a furious mob piously and self-righteously shouting abuse and gleeful vindictive fury at the person standing next to you, recruiting strangers to join in as your victim cowers in fear, like crows attacking a sparrow, you might want to reconsider your life choices.

• Penny Anderson is a writer and artist


Penny Anderson

The GuardianTramp

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