Something is rotten in the state of technology. I only realised the extent of this when I wrote last year about an Irish government minister who had committed suicide just before Christmas 2012, partly because – according to his brother at the graveside – he had received so many abusive messages on the internet.
The response from those claiming to be "readers" was 1) to suggest that the brother was lying; 2) that the minister deserved to die because of his policies (which included cuts in care homes); and 3) to condemn the dead minister for not being thoughtful enough to postpone his suicide until after Christmas.
Was it always like this? Did these hateful anonymous messages arrive when "Letters to the Editor" was the only way to express feelings – in print, of course – about other human beings? "Name and address supplied" was the last straw in anonymity that any editor permitted. But now anonymity must be protected, cosseted, guarded, because privacy, even privacy to abuse, is more important than responsibility. "Online comment" – and the "comment" bit definitely deserves a "sic" – takes precedence over criminal threats.
As I travel around the world to lecture on the Middle East, I am finding that an increasing number of journals are suspending or restricting online comment. Among the latest to do so was the National Catholic Register, whose editor, Dennis Coday, decided that the malicious, abusive and vile comments received – far from remarks on the substance of an article – were "pure vandalism". Coday suggested it was everyone’s responsibility to make the internet a civil place by making contributors identifiable, just as they were in the days when editors (and lawyers) decided whose letters may or may not be published.
The Irish columnist Breda O’Brien wrote in February that, while she had to adhere to strict guidelines in her work as a print journalist, it was "bizarre" that "people can comment on my articles with impunity and say anything they like about me or about others. The sheer level of nastiness is difficult to describe". O’Brien wrote of the "dark" experience of those who – online – wish her to "be badly beaten, or die from painful diseases, or that my children be taken away from me… One person has repeatedly expressed the wish that I be burned to death". Much of this material is intended to "take down" individuals. "The savagery of online commentary," O’Brien wrote, "is beginning to bleed into everyday discussions."
She is right. I have written before of the foul, racist abuse I receive – passed on in hard copy by friends who say they sometimes fear for my safety – and of the ambivalent, slovenly way in which those who are involved in "chat rooms" and "platforms" run away from their own responsibility by claiming that they’ve no money for a "mediator" (by which they mean editor) or that "the internet is here to stay, whether you like it or not". Journalists around the world have noticed this phenomenon, whether it be the "preening nastiness of online comment" in Brazilian media about the need for street vigilantes, or the outright ethnic hatred that you can find on the websites of quite respectable publications, often remarks which should result in prosecution for racial hatred.
Some of the material I read about Muslims – sent to me on paper by internet users who are even more shocked than I have become – are the product of psychopaths, demanding the rape of Muslim women. Equally venomous, and just as dangerous, is the anti-Semitic filth aimed at journalists, politicians, historians and activists who are Jewish. One European Jewish government minister wrote of how "racist and prejudiced online commentary … all too frequently results on occasions when I am personally in the public eye". I should add that both those claiming to loathe Israel and those claiming to support it are also on the front line of dishing out abuse.
Perhaps my own fury and frustration with this state of affairs makes my response all the more direct. But the dirt, racism, foul abuse, the lies and innuendo and slanders and bullying on the web, in blogs and text messages and chat rooms, has become a sickness. "Trolls", we call these psychologically disturbed people, and even that is indicative of our craven addiction to technology. So awed are we – so "taken over" by the new science of communication – that we have to liken these poison-pen writers and abusers to creatures of Scandinavian mythology rather than to the fantasists and racial bullies whom they really are.
It leaches, this language, into the shock-jock radio shows and to right-wing cable news channels, and it deadens the soul; not in the religious sense, but in the way in which the internet itself – the experience of "social media" – has indeed become an addiction as fearsome as drugs or cigarettes. We must be "computer literate" rather than "literate"; some of the hard copy e-mails I receive are not only ungrammatical – the spelling is also appalling – but virtually incomprehensible. Who were the first addicts? The young who gulped down these new "freedoms" – or their peers who told them that this was the way forward?
I’m still stunned by a moment several years ago when I was asked by a student, after giving a lecture at a US university, if I "could name any good websites on the Middle East". I replied with four words: what’s wrong with books? The students cheered. Their academic tutors in the front row glowered at me reproachfully.
The internet catastrophe – perhaps I should say tragedy – grows tentacles. We have become, as one psychologist has said, "seduced by distraction". We no longer reflect. We react. We don’t read books – always supposing we buy them – we "surf" them. Take Spritz. According to its own pap advertising, it’s a "Boston-based start-up focused on text-streaming technology", whose founders are "serial entrepreneurs with extensive experience in developing and commercialising innovative technologies". And you’ll not be surprised to learn that the crackpots running Spritz, after inviting fans to read up to 600 words a minute, claim that you’ll soon be able to read Tolstoy’s War And Peace in less than 10 hours.
Is that not part of the problem? When you delete thought, impoverish literature and worship technology – not as a wonderful scientific achievement but as a god – then there are no rules. You can drink Tolstoy, smoke books, and breathe in hatred. Something rotten? What does rotten mean?