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Virtual pitchforks just as dangerous as the real kind

By Fionola Meredith

Published 13/11/2015

Much is made of the democratic power of social media. Thanks to the great liberator of the internet, everyone can have their say, not just those who occupy positions of privilege or influence
Much is made of the democratic power of social media. Thanks to the great liberator of the internet, everyone can have their say, not just those who occupy positions of privilege or influence

Much is made of the democratic power of social media. Thanks to the great liberator of the internet, everyone can have their say, not just those who occupy positions of privilege or influence. The phrase 'citizen journalist' seems rather quaint and old-fashioned these days: now anyone with access to an internet connection is automatically a polemicist, a broadcaster, a freedom fighter, a social activist assisting the global spread of truth and justice. People have opinions - serious, important ones - and boy, are the rest of us going to hear about them.

And that's just fine, as far as I'm concerned. I'm all for unfettered free expression, even when it means being bombarded with a near-continuous onslaught of ignorant or illogical or semi-literate musings, dressed up as real knowledge and profound insight.

Of course, there's the odd person worth listening to in the yowling online zoo, but it's a bit like going to Primark or TK Maxx - it's possible that you might eventually pick up a great shirt but you have to sort through an awful lot of tacky dross to find it. Which makes you think the whole endeavour isn't worth beginning in the first place.

As for the vitriol and bile, the false allegations, the malicious trolling - well, that's simply the price we pay for freedom, and it's one worth paying, no matter how noxious it all gets. After all, we do have the option - radical, I know - of switching off and walking away.

Where it really gets worrying, however, is when the swill of virtual outrage spills over and starts influencing events in the real world.

Take the online kick-up over the absence of poppies on Ulster rugby players' jerseys during a match played on Remembrance Sunday. 'Shameful', 'dishonourable', 'disrespectful' - the clamour grew louder and louder. No matter that a minute's silence was observed before the game, or that a wreath was laid, as is usual practice, at the war memorial at the Ulster stadium at Ravenhill. No, the only issue was whether the Ulstermen were wearing poppies, and if not, why not? The row practically guarantees that next November the players will be resplendent in specially-commissioned shirts with the poppy symbol securely woven in, like the ones worn by their opponents, Newport-Gwent Dragons. Then they should be safe enough.

Because no organisation dares to get on the wrong side of the mob. In a superficial, PR-dominated world where perception is everything, they fear reputational damage far more than they fear a crowd of yokels with flaming torches and pitchforks turning up at their gates.

Look at the behaviour of the big supermarkets, like Tesco or Asda, for an object lesson in mob compliance. As soon as a complaint against them goes viral, they immediately start offering up the abject apologies. Sorry for putting that gory Halloween costume near the check-outs where it scares kids. Sorry for selling bacon-flavour crisps as part of a Ramadan promotion (even though the crisps in question were pork-free, and therefore perfectly fine for Muslims avoiding eating that meat). But sorry, terribly sorry, nonetheless! They know that rolling over and submitting is the easiest way to appease the shrieking hordes.

When the Nobel prize-winning biologist Professor Tim Hunt was naive enough to make a silly joke about women scientists, Twitter went bonkers, because the mob scented fresh prey. The scalp of a privileged old man, what could be tastier and more satisfying?

Sure enough, Hunt was swiftly hustled out of his post by University College London. Then the European Research Council and the Royal Society ditched him too. Later, it emerged that Hunt's words had been badly misrepresented, but it was too late - the damage had been done, a man's career was in ruins, and all because these great intellectual institutions were scared of what people might say about them online.

This is why it's such a sick joke to talk about the empowering, democratising force of social media. Yes, it can spread information (and mis-information) around the world in an instant, and rally supporters to a cause in mere seconds, but it's no swashbuckling sword of collective truth. In fact, Twitter and the like are far more often a mouthpiece for selective tolerance and social conformism. Stick to our rules, yell the Twitterstormtroopers, or else. Don't dare move out of line, if you know what's good for you.

We're handing control to the mob, and what's laughable is that we're doing it in the name of enlightenment and progress.

Just because you can't see the pitchforks doesn't mean they're not there.

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