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'There's always people who use social media to pour out their hatred to those they view as a worthy target'

Former UUP MLA Jenny Palmer this week became the latest victim of social media trolls who have also targeted former First Minister Arlene Foster, ex-DUP MLA Emma Little Pengelly and victims' campaigners Ann Travers and Mairia Cahill. Here, former NIO political officer Michael Cameron tells how he witnessed first-hand the damage wrought by vile online attacks on his wife, the DUP MLA Pam Cameron - and he makes a passionate appeal to the bullies responsible to think before they press the send button.

For a boy who grew up in Kilcooley, I've been lucky enough to have met many famous people over the past number of years. Presidents, princes and prime ministers have all stood in front of me in various grand locations, though to be fair they were probably wondering who I was and why wasn't I carrying a tray of sandwiches.

On many of these occasions something quite odd happened to me and I still suffer from it to this day when I meet someone who is relatively well-known - a sudden onset of mental Tourette's.

Usually it happened when I noticed someone approaching me from a little way off. I could immediately begin to hear a stellar range of swear words forming an orderly queue and daring me to blurt them out at the exact moment the person arrives in front of me. It was quite torturous because although I knew that I wasn't going to tell the Croatian president to go eff himself, I would get into a complete state in case I actually might do it.

If I listened hard enough I was also aware of a much quieter voice trying to provide some control by urging me not to shout out the F-word or something equally inappropriate.

Thankfully, I always managed to override the mental tumult, though I did quite often feel a bead of perspiration trickling down my back once the moment had passed.

These days I don't mix so much with the great and the good and instead enjoy a fairly solitary existence in the man cave while writing and telling the dogs to stop barking at every bird that bops in the treetop. However, the mental Tourette's still occasionally occurs, except now it mostly appears when I log on to social media. Let me explain.

Up until a few months ago most of my social media interaction involved posting pictures of my dinner and my dogs.

At the end of mealtimes, the two subjects became inextricably linked as dogs and leftover food collided.

Pictures were taken, posted on Facebook and then we all went to bed happy and content.

Then something weird happened - the Scottish referendum, Brexit, Trump and to put the tin hat on it, an unexpected Assembly election, all exploded in quick succession like fireworks on New Year's Eve.

I couldn't find a garlic prawn anywhere on my timeline but by God there was no shortage of political experts online.

People who just the week before had been asking for guidance on how to stop their bananas going black were holding court on the economic and political crises now engulfing us.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I'm all in favour of people becoming more interested in the events that shape our lives. For too long there has been an understandable lack of interest in politics given the perpetual groundhog day that has existed here for as long as most of us can remember.

What first alerted me to the fact that something was amiss though was when I discovered recently that for the past few years I had been waking up beside a corrupt criminal.

As you can imagine this was terribly shocking to find out but there was absolutely no doubt about it. I mean someone had said it on social media so it must be true, right?

There has always been those who use social media to pour out their own brand of hatred to anyone they deem a worthy target.

In our case, it was usually a poisonous individual or two, who had been married a few times themselves, sitting in judgement of people and circumstances they knew nothing about except what they had read in a Sunday tabloid or posted on Facebook. There's a saying along the lines of 'repeating a lie doesn't make it a truth' which is a quaint little phrase, but it offers no comfort when you watch your family being affected by a lie being perpetuated by vicious individuals.

Quite often I would have responded to certain posts and comments only to discover that each time I did, the vitriol would worsen and, to be honest, the worse the abuse, the more my own mental health suffered.

Quite often I would look at the incredibly vile comments being dished out to my wife and other female politicians and just ask myself why anyone would choose to put themselves through this. It wouldn't be accepted or tolerated in any other walk of life. By the way, don't for one minute think that I'm saying that those in public life shouldn't be scrutinised or held to account.

They should and social media can be effective in doing that. If politicians are willing to use social media to promote themselves, then there is an obligation on their behalf to answer reasonable questions when asked.

I've never understood the notion though that people in public life should be qualified for sainthood as though it was some essential criteria for the job. Of course, there is a higher standard of behaviour required given the nature of the role and the public money involved but there are enough bodies in place to ensure those standards are adhered to.

However, the fact that politicians are human would appear to me to rule out perfection on their part, even if some of them do believe they are morally superior to the rest of us. I'm also not saying that once the facts around any kind of perceived wrongdoing are known, that we aren't entitled to hold an opinion of the individuals being investigated.

Of course we are, but whatever the circumstance it is not our right or entitlement to abuse them.

Like many of life's darker downsides it's only when a problem comes to your own door that you really start to pay attention. Up until that point it's been someone else's business to deal with, but social media has changed all that.

When I was a kid, politicians were akin to royalty, an elite and remote ruling class.

The first politician I ever saw was North Down MP Jim Kilfedder as he drove through our estate in a Ford Anglia asking for votes via his megaphone. Jim was smart though, he may have driven slowly enough to let the people see him but he kept the wheels of his Anglia turning lest it ended up on blocks or as the centrepiece of a Vanguard barricade.

Jim is long gone as is his megaphone. I never got to meet him so he never invoked the old Tourette's, but somewhere, somehow, while most of us weren't really paying attention, our world has changed forever.

Thanks to social media, not only can I now contact an MP at the drop of a hat, I can if I so choose send a direct message to the President of the United States.

I've haven't actually done that, but that's because every time I contemplate messaging the Donald, the Tourette's kicks in and not necessarily mentally.

So, to manage my possible future communications with the president, I have recently drawn up my own social media guidelines which basically amounts to agreeing with myself that if I won't say something to someone's face, I'm not going to post it to them on social media. I also have a second clause that if I reach a second bottle of anything, someone nearby is free to forcefully remove my iPad.

Here in Northern Ireland one thing we can all agree on is that we've been through enough hurt. We need to remember that our society is not a normal society, not yet anyway, so you would think that we might be a little more careful in the words we use to each other.

I've seen some vile posts aimed at politicians and others in public life which are probably bordering on a criminal offence and they are being typed by people who work with children or in mental health. Seriously? Do their employers condone what is going on? Do we condone it?

Would you want your child being mentored by someone who mentally abuses others for a little light relief in the evenings?

Everyone in public life is accountable. They also have offices where you can meet them to discuss any grievances you may have if you are really that concerned about something they've said or done.

They are also human beings with partners and children who read what is being said about their family. Imagine what those children must face when they turn up at school the next day. It's not right and we need to act to ensure those who engage in this activity are exposed.

You and I may not be able to influence world events, but we can influence events in our own world. Please don't let us create another sectarian and intimidatory war zone in the place that we all call home.

Let's face it, we are still struggling to deal with the actual events of our lifetime. We don't need to do it all again in cyberspace.

Belfast Telegraph


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