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How the faceless haters are running amok on Twitter

By Gail Walker

Published 21/04/2015

John Coyle
John Coyle

Politicians are never going to top anyone's poll - other than their own - when it comes to doling out sympathy for anything.

After all, they do set themselves up, especially at elections, either as wannabe public figures who have yet to prove themselves, or as returning candidates, hoping the voters will somehow forget their record or remember what good they did, if any.

They are usually viewed as smooth-talking, slick-operating, glib-commentating, answer-dodging professionals, ducking and diving their way from studio to hustings to media profile.

Of course, they can often be sincere, public-spirited, talented people, who have devoted their lives to serving the common weal.

In fact, in my experience, politicians are frequently both of these characterisations at the very same time.

Which means that the online abuse parliamentary candidate for Fermanagh-South Tyrone John Coyle received during and after a recent nervy performance on BBC's The View should give us all pause for thought.

Coyle was brought to tears after the TV show by what he called "abusive bullying" on the social media channel Twitter, on which it is possible to air one's views both publicly and directly to someone else, but anonymously using pseudonyms which are generally untraceable.

Even that description should alert potential users to the dangers inherent in any exchanges online, even if one is simply a private individual. And there are legions of anecdotal reports of how ordinary Twitter users have been stalked and abused by ex-partners, for example, forcing them offline.

Add political personalities to the mix, however, and the potential for grievous abuse is obvious. There have been celebrated cases of online bullying in GB, which have led to some measure of control from Twitter's parent company.

But it was perhaps last year's revelations by Mairia Cahill of how she had been raped and abused by IRA volunteers which really drew attention to the power of social media to spew serious, disturbing and offensive attitudes into the public arena with impunity. The targeting of individuals can be orchestrated where there is political, or sectarian, motivation and this can quickly develop into a frenzy of abuse.

Moreover Twitter, by its very immediacy and directness, allows ordinary people in the street, as it were, to "contact" celebrities as easily as texting their own family members. It is a chance for private individuals to communicate with their heroes; but also a completely new opportunity for the very many angry, nasty and frustrated people to resort to quite astonishing levels of personal attack.

For decades in Northern Ireland, the shelter of anonymity in the public Press was a useful and important way for whistle-blowing to occur, where someone who had a tale of corruption, or wrongdoing, to tell but whose job, for instance, would be at risk if their identities were known.

But what occurs routinely here now on social media is the untrammelled "masked man" syndrome - and it is almost always men - operating under pseudonyms individually, or in groups, picking targets derived from political or sectarian motives and running riot with a wide variety of abuse techniques.

For such people and groups, anonymity is not a protection from intimidation, but actually a cover for indulging in it. And, in that regard, it is in fact the epitome of cowardice.

What happened to John Coyle drew attention to the fact of such online abuse. He is a politician and so will receive personal support from his party and may even grow that thick skin seasoned public figures sometimes brag about. He'll "muscle up", as the saying goes.

But that won't deter the nasties, the group-huggers, the prejudiced and the bigoted, the many little gatherings of like, simple-minded people online who rush to join in when bullying is taking place, adding their own vitriol.

Even Coyle's Fermanagh accent was mocked, as in fact the way working-class people are thought to speak in Northern Ireland - but don't - has been mocked.

Sad to say, even class here can make a person a target. It would be a mistake to think that abusive Tweeters are drawn from the uneducated. In fact, some of the most incendiary online jeerers and sneerers are smooth-talking, slick-operating, glib-commentating, answer-dodging bullies, themselves wannabe public figures who will never find an audience other than from behind the balaclava of online trolling, as it is known.

There is no point appealing to their better natures. But we all should be aware that it's not the public good that motivates any kind of abuse. It's malice.

And we've had quite enough of that in the actual world, thanks very much.

Belfast Telegraph

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