Belfast Telegraph

How the internet has turned us into frightened frauds

By Jane Graham

Last week it was journalist Samantha Brick who suffered a global hatestorm when her thoughtful treatise on the science of sexual rivalry left Twitter struggling to cope under the mountain of insults and Freddie Krugar-inspired visions of how she might see out her final days.

I myself questioned the motivation for her article, feeling safe in the knowledge that, as a made-up cartoon character, she was unlikely to mind. Even if she is real (and that shoddily performed actress's appearance on This Morning did nothing to convince me), I doubt that she noticed my sub-academic analysis, drowning as she was under the spew of grotesque verbal attacks her silly article provoked.

This week it was journalist Laurie Penny who bore the brunt of mouth-frothing respondents to what she must have regarded as a fairly innocuous tweet about how she'd just been pulled back from absent-mindedly walking into New York traffic by movie star Ryan Gosling.

Her tweet inspired numerous excitable newspaper follow-ups in the States eulogising gallant Gosling for his gentlemanly act of swooping up a damsel in distress, which in turn inspired a bemused article from Penny about the perils of celebrity reverence.

If Penny was hoping this would draw a line under the affair, she couldn't have been more wrong. Her column was met with an avalanche of angry, aggressive comments accusing her of everything from self-righteous anti-Americanism to ungratefulness for undermining the feel-good glow Gosling should have been basking in after his brave 10-second act of super-heroism.

Comedian Alan Davies may sympathise - he spent most of Tuesday simply re-tweeting the death threats he's been bombarded with since he suggested that Liverpool football club should re-think their policy of refusing to play matches on the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy.

Davies and Penny are just two of this week's more high profile victims of the call and response culture which dominates the way we in the western world now communicate. Penny has already stated that she is leaving Twitter, as many who have suffered similar abuse have done before her.

As these incidents pile up, we are becoming increasingly cautious about what we say online, with anything but the most unobjectionable, mainstream opinions on serious issues becoming the preserve of the brave or foolhardy.

As for Facebook, rather than using it to share thoughts and memories, research has shown that most people exploit the platform to construct false 'dream' identities and lifestyles to show off to 'friends' - most of whom they barely know.

No surprise then that sites like Pinterest, which allow us to borrow other people's photos and pictures to present our fantasy homes/families/outfits to the world, have recently become so popular.

The internet once felt like an opportunity to give the silenced a voice; it offered a fantasy of transparency, accountability and freedom of expression - a utopian democracy.

It has since become exactly the opposite - an oppressive land where we all watch our mouths and present artificial, fraudulent versions of ourselves. This virus has infected all of us, from ordinary citizens and celebrities to those who lead nations, with our own Cabinet members reportedly complaining that they are less inclined to voice their honest opinions in meetings, so fearful are they of being publicly chastised or even forced to resign if their frank, unspun thoughts are exposed on the 'outside'.

Can we ever regain the truths which privacy, confidentiality and yes, secrecy, once allowed? It sounds crazy even to ask the question, but if the answer is no, we are all likely to suffer.

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