Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Sadly Slane Girl won't be last to suffer such a public humiliation

There is a theory that the internet will somehow police itself
There is a theory that the internet will somehow police itself

Slane Girl. Two words that sum up a headline story, an internet storm, a major moral conundrum of our time. And amid all that, let us not forget, the very personal hurt and humiliation of a young girl.

Slane Girl. Not, you'll notice, Slane Boy. It is always the girl who gets the flak. The controversy, in case you have somehow missed it, centres on photographs posted online showing the young girl who comes from the Dublin area performing what's primly referred to as a sex act on a couple of young men during a rock concert at Slane.

Online posters have been having a field day slagging off all parties but especially, inevitably, the girl. Although attempts have been made to have the pictures taken down they have swept like contagion through social networking sites. They don't describe this process as viral for nothing.

Heartbreakingly it's reported that the girl is underage. Even more heartbreakingly she's said to be so distraught at what's happened she's been placed under sedation in hospital.

The whole thing is a horrible distressing mess. A very modern mess fuelled by ever accessible mobile cameras, the wildfire speed of social media, the prurience of posters ...

I can't imagine anyone reading this story and not feeling the utmost sympathy for that wee girl and her family. Hopefully they will get all the help and support they need in the days ahead.

But who do we blame for what has happened? More to the point how can we stop this happening again? Time and time again? For this is sadly not a unique example of the savagery of internet inquisition.

In terms of blame – where to start? Maybe with society itself. This is the age of Rihanna and Geordie Shore and the sexualisation of girls too young, too immature to handle pressures and situations far beyond their experience. It is the age of the photograph taken and shared without thought to the terrible damage it can wreak. It spirals out of control before anyone can stop it.

The internet has transformed our world. Overwhelmingly for the better.

But it is also the Coliseum of the 21st century. The place where we toss the vulnerable, the defenceless to be ripped apart before all our eyes. We may not feel good about watching. We may turn away. But there is seemingly nothing we can do to stop the random, almost casual cruelty of the so-called online community.

What sort of person, for example, sends sneering messages of hate to the parents of a young child battling with cancer? The standard term is troll – a word taken from the underworld of Scandinavian folklore. Most would agree though that the description is way too kind for the social media inheritors of the name.

Put it like this, most of us could think of more apt words to describe the sort of person who goes online to hector the mother and father of four-year-old Oscar Knox.

There is a theory that the internet will somehow police itself. But what about the massive, irreversible hurt caused in the meantime? Children taking their own lives because of online bullying? Lives blighted. Hearts broken. How we tackle it, God knows. But we have to tackle it. Standing back, heads bowed in shame tut-tutting at the horror of it all isn't enough. Slane Girl should be the last to ever have to suffer such massive public humiliation.

The ultimate tragedy of this sad, shabby story – we know she won't be.

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