The term cyberbullying is a powerful one, and it should be, because it is every bit as vicious and painful as bullying face to face. This is also why the word should not be bandied about to represent anyone who disagrees with you. If you say something stupid and people pull you up on it via Twitter, that is NOT cyberbullying. Over the last few days Twitter has become increasingly tense and I see factions being drawn up between ‘celebrities’ and ‘plebs.’ Everyone needs to learn from this and change their behaviour.
My philosophy in life is pretty simple: ‘How is that helping?’ When using social media or indeed talking to anybody, it’s an important question to keep in mind.
Obviously it’s not nice to just send abuse to somebody and there are trolls out there who set out purely to be mean. If you did not enjoy a piece of work performed by a famous Twitter user, do not @ their name into your conversation unless it is something you would say to their face. It’s rude and entirely unnecessary. You’d be surprised how many performers receive tweets out of the blue reading: “Why are you so shit/fat/ugly?” It’s not easy to just shake that off, nor should anyone have to. I don’t care if they are famous or not, there’s no need to go around purposefully upsetting someone.
At the same time, celebrities have to acknowledge they are in a very different position of power and use it responsibly. Charlie Brooker is wise to reveal troll messages without including their usernames, therefore avoiding a flame war while getting his point across. Ricky Gervais does the exact opposite, actively encouraging his millions of followers – who we already know just LOVE to shout ‘mong’ at his request – to send insults to specific people. Surely nobody can say this is responsible behaviour? It’s not ‘fighting back’ because it is completely out of proportion. It’s revenge, pure and simple.
This brings us on to the problem that has sprung up over the last few days. It is delicate territory and very emotionally charged, so please try to read and only then form a response. Debate is important and Twitter has created a fantastic global conversation that was simply never possible before now. As I’ve already said, it can be abused, but we must protect the sense that everyone can contribute in a civil, reasonable manner. This now feels at risk.
Dissent is not bullying. It might feel like it when there are numerous voices piling in to criticise your position, but if there are so many over a long period of time, you might want to ask yourself why they are all saying roughly the same thing. Don’t dismiss them all out of hand as an organised mob. When you tweet that something has upset you, your friends and followers send sympathetic messages, right? Similarly, if someone is upsetting your friend, you rush to defend them and try to help vouch for their good intentions. In the recent case with Nicky Clark and cookdandbombd, watching this spiral out of control was horrific for everyone. Friends and supporters from both sides piled in to contribute and it felt like the individuals were being swamped with comments, some less well phrased than others. I am sad it made BOTH of these individuals feel afraid to use Twitter, but the more it escalated with blogs, counter-blogs and newspaper articles, the more people joined the conversation and the more shouty it all became. Imagine all these people in a room, talking to each other with a conversation that goes on for a week. Of course it’d drive anyone up the wall.
Ultimately, I don’t think Nicky Clark and cookdandbombd are all that far apart in their positions on cyberbullying. They have both shown us the strong emotional impact Twitter can have and just how carefully we must use it. I’m sure both will agree celebrities are not expected to just put up with insults, but on Twitter should learn to differentiate trolls from people with genuine points to be made. Today I saw a doctor accused of cyberbullying and reported to the POLICE for taking her up on a passage written in her book. That way madness lies. If you cannot find common ground in a debate, then someone has to take the initiative to say ‘let’s agree to disagree’ and leave it there.
I have been in this situation, which could’ve been so much worse. I wrote this blog: http://chicalolita.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/frankie-boyle-the-only-taboo-must-be-crap-comedy/ and sent it to Emma Kennedy via DM (she was following me at the time) because there had been a debate around a particular joke Frankie Boyle had made. I thought it reasonable enough and wanted her opinion on it, potentially keeping the discussion private, as it was clear this issue meant a lot to her. She immediately blocked me and complained that someone had “told me I should be laughing at breast cancer jokes.” She received multiple messages of sympathy about how I – thankfully unnamed! – was a “monster,” a “troll” and trying to upset her. I had intended the complete opposite and was astonished, truly hurt that my blog had caused her pain or prompted me to be considered in such a way. I then received numerous messages from celebrities, many of them her friends and colleagues, who assured me she had been “out of order” and totally unreasonable. They insisted I had nothing to apologise or feel bad for. They did it via DM, mind you…
I know it’s hard when two people you follow start to fight on Twitter, but sometimes we need the guts to stand up and say ‘listen, you over-reacted there and their intention was not to be cruel. Don’t make this turn ugly.’ Or, if it’s too late, sit back and write a really long blog.