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This article was written on 14 Dec 2015, and is filled under Uncategorised.

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Calling time on the insanity of Twitter spats

I’ve been involved in Twitter pile-ons. Nothing quite equals the thrill of moral outrage as you get angry, as part of a huge flock of people, with someone who has said a thing, peck their eyes out online and then have lunch. You get a feeling that you’re a fierce online warrior for truth and justice, they feel like crap and so the world turns.

And I have started feeling profoundly uneasy about this. What accelerated that was Julia Hartley-Privilege’s attack on a 17 year old girl in print and then online. The sides here are by no means even. The girl is 17, and her critic is an experienced media old hand who can kick her all round the park who presumably has most section editors on speed dial.

The same thing, though, happens elsewhere. Once someone has said something that enough people happen not to like, a similar sort of power mobilises itself behind them and their adversary, whether right or wrong, finds themselves dealing with a huge wall of noise and banned to the far reaches of the shores of the civilised world.

What this doesn’t do is present a reason as to why that person is wrong. It condemns. All that being shouted at does is to make you retreat to your original position and defend it with a rigour that you may not have done before, while blocking your adversaries or locking your account in a vague bid to stem the vast tide of bile that is sweeping you away.

Disagreeing with Hartley-Privilege meant that two dozen people lined up to have a go at me, Louise Mensch got involved, a young Tory who looked like a 13 year old with a massive, posh bouffant had a crack as well and the whole thing was hugely unedifying. But I’ve done that to other people and I imagine that arguing with a cartoon rabbit isn’t most people’s idea of fun.

Social media is at its worst when you lose sight of the fact that someone is on the end of that comment. I’m not talking about people like Mensch or Hopkins or Hartley-Privilege, whose profile and follower count means that they neither want for protection or for the power to inflict lasting damage, but the foot soldiers who can be blown off the map after five minutes of concerted effort from the comfort of a sofa.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this stuff and, while most comments are not only witless but apparently typed with someone’ elbow, some stuff gets through and does what the writer intends it to do, which is to upset you. And likewise, I’ve posted tweets whose intention was that someone was hurt. What you end up with is a giant circle of hurt in which everyone attacks everyone else and the whole thing, finally, falls to pieces to a massive chorus of tears and the gnashing of teeth.

For negotiations to work, one side has to swallow its pride and say that it might not carry on doing the thing that the other side is upset about for a bit if they can talk, which is pretty much what I’m doing. What makes this sharper is that I’ve recently returned to my habit of going to Quaker meetings for worship and the quiet emphasis on peaceful ways of conflict resolution and pacifism feels not like the easier way but the way that is right and which commends itself to me.

And the final thing has been the Guardian’s interview with Rachel Dolezal, who people might remember told the world she was black, turned out not to be black and who hasn’t had a very happy time of it since. I don’t read the Guardian as my tolerance for soft-left, middle class smuggery is not what it was, but Dolezal clearly had the kind of childhood which isn’t going to make a very happy adult and really doesn’t need more media attention or censure.

So this has to stop. Dolezal has been kicked around by people I generally like and agree with, any number of people are randomly singled out for the written equivalent of a drive-by shooting and it’s painting a fairly bleak picture of humanity going feral and eating itself. Reasoned debate is ace, but the present status of open warfare really isn’t really tenable. Soon the only thing to do with Twitter will be to leave. And that feels like surrender.

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