The nastiest person on Twitter has quit Twitter. Because I’m so generous I shan’t mention his name. All I’ll say is he that he co-wrote one of the 1990s’ warmest, funniest, daffiest sitcoms — which is possibly what made his attack-dog vitriol so especially hurtful. It was like being stabbed with a fork by Gyles Brandreth, kneed in the groin by your vicar, given the middle finger by the Queen. What, you kept wondering, could possess someone you were predisposed to admire to make them behave like such a dreadful heel?
Because social media makes monsters of us, unfortunately. Some people, at any rate. We discussed this at the weekend at the Battle of Ideas festival in London at an event called: ‘We need to talk. The vices and virtues of social media.’ One of my fellow panellists, Alex Benson, a club promoter, described the terrifying sensation of having once been caught in a Twitter storm and feeling so universally hated that he scarcely dared venture outdoors. But when he did so he discovered something odd: in real life (IRL) everyone was as perfectly affable as ever they had been. All that rage had been confined to the social media bubble.
As Benson noted, people say things on Twitter that if voiced in a pub would get you a punch in the face. This is partly because the 140-character medium encourages you to be pithy, provocative and nuance-free in order to grab other users’ attention. And partly because taking out someone when you can’t hear them squeal is much easier than killing them with your bare hands.
Many find the experience so unpleasant they quit in disgust, as Stephen Fry announces he’s done, from time to time. This is exactly the right thing to do. At its worst Twitter can feel like Stalingrad: house-to-house, mano-a-mano, bashing your enemies’ brains out with whatever entrenching tool comes to hand. But the key difference is: you volunteered for this; you can opt out at any time.
Or if quitting is too extreme, you can do what some of the people I follow do: one tweets about his efforts to match paint at National Trust properties; another details his adventures researching papers on the first world war navy in the archives; one just tells you what a jolly day she’s having. Guess how much hate they get?
So up to a point, on social media you reap what you sow. If you have a strong opinion, and you want to put it out there and submit it to the judgment of your Twitter peers, then don’t suddenly act all surprised and wounded when they tell you exactly what you don’t want to hear.
It’s why I have limited sympathy for the Twitter cry-bully brigade, most of them either attention-seeking female Labour MPs or activists for ineffably tedious social justice warrior campaign groups like the Every-day Sexism project. I’m sure the deluge of ugly responses they get can be scary and painful, and I’m not defending the deplorable language used against them.
But the cynic in me suspects that it all rather suits their purpose: they want Twitter to be censored by people of a left-wing persuasion like themselves; they want police time to be wasted pursuing sad, lonely men who live with their mums for supposed ‘rape threats’ that were never meant to be taken seriously; they want the papers to be full of vivid, quotable, 140-character illustrations of what neanderthals all men are, and of just how much still needs to be done in order to correct society’s terrible gender injustice. It’s a very effective way of closing down the argument: goading trolls and then using their vileness in order to smear the case of all those informed, decent, articulate men who’d like to point out, ‘Um actually this rape culture is a figment of your imagination’ and ‘By the way, that’s also true of the gender pay gap…’
This is why I worry when I hear certain Tory ministers joining in the predictable demands from the left for more to be done to police — i.e. censor — social media. It may feel to them like they are addressing a fashionable issue of public concern. But what they’re actually doing is playing the enemy’s game: Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google and co are all controlled and run by progressive types who don’t understand conservative arguments and who therefore feel under no obligation to protect them. ‘I believe in free speech but…’ is an argument one hears increasingly often from the liberal left. That ‘but’ is the killer.
Having survived the odd Twitter storm myself, I know how awful it can be when the mob descends on you. It’s not an experience I would wish on my worst enemies (indeed, on occasion, I’ve risen to their defence when it has happened to them). But the alternative — in which your every risqué bon mot gets submitted to the red-pen judgment of humourless, politically correct Ivy League graduates; or the police come banging at your door just because you’ve rather waggishly trained your pug to do the Heil Hitler salute and put it up on YouTube — seems to me infinitely more dangerous, nay fascistic.
Ultimately, as I told my wise, lovely and generally assenting Battle of Ideas audience, social media is the mob — and the mob has always been there. When the mob smiles on you and raises you up, nothing could be more thrilling. You can become Caesar, or Donald Trump, or even Gary Lineker, once just a little-known crisp salesman, but now elevated by his impeccably right-on observations on Twitter into one of the most celebrate SJW thinkers of our age.
When the mob turns on you, however, you feel rather as Cinna the Poet must have done just before he was torn to pieces by the crowd who mistook him for Cinna the Conspirator to kill Caesar: ‘Why me?’ It’s cruel, it’s unfair but it’s just the way things are. The mob, after all, is just another word for us.
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