This week, the television presenter Sue Perkins announced she’s going to be spending some time away from Twitter. We’re often advised to undergo a bit of a digital detox, but unfortunately in Sue’s case, this isn’t a lifestyle choice. She’s actually been forced off the social network by, of all things, Top Gear fans.
Late last week, rumours began to drift across the internet that Perkins was being lined-up to replace the terminated Jeremy Clarkson, on the programme. While this may or may not have been true (Perkins says it’s nonsense), the following, rabid reaction raises an important question: has social media, and the internet as a whole, made bullying more acceptable?
“It’s almost as though they enjoy the drama.”
This whole scenario brings unpleasant echoes of an infamous incident last year, when her suggestion that a female face should be depicted on a bank note resulted in Caroline Criado-Perez being threatened with violence, rape and worse. At the time, there was an awful lot of hand-wringing and worthy words. However, once the furore had fallen away and a couple of inadequates had faced trial for their behaviour, it was business as usual at Twitter. There was no public announcement of a system for tackling misuse of the network, no blanket banning of miscreant users, and barely more than lip-service by way of condemnation. It’s almost as though Twitter’s operators are intensely laid-back about their tools being a conduit for aggressive harassment; almost as though they quite enjoy the drama, friction and attention.
In February, as part of a leaked memo, Twitter’s boss Dick Costolo wrote: “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret that the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.” Well, if Mr. Costolo has any bright ideas for bringing an end to the nastiness, he’s done nothing to protect Sue Perkins.
Bullying is nothing new. For as long as human beings have gathered together, there have always been those inclined to quench their insecurities by ganging together to persecute an individual. That ‘ganging together’ is very symptomatic; bullies rarely act alone. Even when their allies are only present in a virtual sense, they leech reassurance and power from others taking part. Whatever bullying’s vintage, it does seem the internet has opened a new arena of persecution for these cowards. Handed a useful anonymity, they easily pile into almost anyone crossing their radar – from television personalities and journalists, to the frail and anxious. They see the likes of Katie Hopkins and Edwina Currie enjoying wealth and profile born of nastiness, and take it as encouragement. With a few exceptions, they are met with little more than a feeble hope they’ll stop. When they fail to act, social platforms give the bullies all the licence they need.
“One can only imagine how many ‘civilians’ have been chased away.”
Sue Perkins’ distress has obviously failed to move Twitter’s executives; but even if it did, it would only be because a celebrity was involved. One can only imagine how many ‘civilians’ have been chased away, leaving in humiliated, fearful silence – just as Costolo described.
Many will say Perkins should be thicker skinned, and should accept the baying masses as the price of her profile. After all, they’re just idiots typing into a little box, what harm can they do? I disagree. Quite apart from the fact that no human being should be forced to accept abuse as part of their job, I believe the more we dismiss or explain bullying away, the more it will be tolerated and normalised. This applies to the digital world as much as it applies to schools, offices or homes. Indeed, given its public influence and penetration, it may be even more important to challenge bullying online.
“The loss of dignity is theirs.”
The curious nature of this modern world insists we accept the existence of militant supporters of a rather daft TV show, without dismay. Well, so be it. If a lump of humanity is so enchanted by three middle-aged men playing chase, then the loss of dignity is theirs to savour. That said, the instant their sweaty excitement drives them to the point these ‘fans’ are wishing death on a woman who may disrupt their tragic boys’ club, is the moment decent people have a duty to object. It’s also the moment that social media bigwigs have a responsibility to prevent those messages reaching their target. Or should we just roll over and hand the bullies the victory?