Belfast Telegraph

How Twitter can turn us into raving monsters

By Jane Graham

With the dust now settling a little on the BBC / Newsnight / Entwistle / Lord McAlpine hullabaloo - though be warned, this is one baby likely to wake up and start hollering again at any moment - I find myself, calmer now, wondering how so many of us found ourselves, just a few days ago, standing at the edge of a metaphorical cliff, red-faced with fury, screaming into the wind.

Was it our outraged sense of injustice - whether for the wrongly implicated Tory peer Lord McAlpine, BBC sacrificial lamb George Entwistle, the license-payers who paid for Entwistle's £450,000 pay-off or the scores of children abused at a North Wales care home who've been tossed to the back of the news queue? Or was it because Twitter made us crazy?

I'm a fan of Twitter. At its best it's a constant source of amusement, information and interesting views. When the mood is feelgood, it can also be a genuine temper fillip, busy with shared jokes, gestures of encouragement and support and even exclamations of wonder.

The stream of joyful oohs and aahs which accompanied the Olympic opening ceremony in July was as convincing an argument for social media creating a global community, lit from within with fuzzy feelings and goodwill, as you'll ever find.

Community spirit is a great thing. Mob mentality, however, not so great. Can you have one without the other? I hoped so, but I'm beginning to think not.

What seems unavoidable about Twitter is that it creates a wave. When the wave is bringing us all onto shore, our warm, sun-blasted faces smiling dreamily at each other, only good can come of it.

But when it's throwing us onto the mercy of the angry storm, our basest fears take hold and we panic, either turning on each other or searching for a scapegoat to bear the brunt of our tumultuous emotions. As soon as our friends, or people we admire, locate a likely candidate, we go in for the kill with the fast-beating heart and relieved rush of a mother owl hunting for her babies' dinner.

The British have long been famed for our natural reserve, at least in public.

We might whisper our darkest secrets or hidden passions to loved ones after a few shandies, but we have not, in the past, been generally inclined to ruin dinner parties with confrontational declarations or potentially offensive spewed-up opinions.

Twitter is changing all that. And as well as mis-directing, sometimes dangerously, the focus of news stories by channelling them through a barrel of uninformed schadenfreude, it's also messing up relationships and friendships.

People we have long been fond of, even loved, intuiting that we share fundamental beliefs, can suddenly look like narcissistic self-publicists, politically unenlightened rednecks, or just idiotic dullards who keep missing the joke when viewed through the unmediated filter of Twitter.

It may be that they've politely and cannily kept certain preferences and attitudes to themselves when they've been with us, then let them all hang out on a late night tweet-spree. Or it might just be that almost all of us, reduced to a bunch of off-the-cuff remarks, can sound stupid or insensitive. Or just annoying.

Read back your own tweets from the last few days. Are you sure you like that person?

There is something monstrous about the power of Twitter and the trial by public opinion and the way it is replacing slow, learned, informed consideration. I'd turn my back on it but that's the other scary thing - it's completely addictive.


From Belfast Telegraph