Trial by Twitter: when toxic social media posts rise again

Anything you tweet may be taken down and used in evidence against you.

hat lesson has been reinforced for social media users over the past few weeks. A series of public figures have found themselves tripped up over questionable online remarks, some from a decade ago.

Alexi McCammond had barely been announced as editor of Teen Vogue when she was agreed to resign over offensive remarks about Asians that she tweeted in 2011, when she was 17. The fact she had apologised for them in 2019 and her employer knew about the episode when they appointed her counted for nothing when the posts were ‘resurfaced’ and an online outcry followed.

Closer to home, British Labour party by-election candidate Paul Williams was urged to stand down after it emerged he had used the term ‘milf’ on Twitter in 2011. He apologised for the ‘inappropriate’ word and clung on, but it was an unwelcome and damaging distraction.

It’s not just what they say but what they do on social media that can backfire on public figures. The BBC News presenter Naga Munchetty apologised this month after ‘liking’ tweets that referred to union jack lovers as ‘flag shaggers’.

These were controversies born and whipped up on social media. Twitter can help users reach an audience, but it also opens them to attack, particularly if they have any kind of public prominence. Many will have sympathised this week when Chrissy Teigen, the model and television personality, told her 13.7 million followers that she was leaving the site.

“For years I have taken so many small, two-follower-count punches that at this point, I am honestly deeply bruised,” she wrote.

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Chrissy Teigen, the model and television personality, told her 13.7 million Twitter followers this week that she was leaving the site. Chrissy Teigen, the model and television personality, told her 13.7 million Twitter followers this week that she was leaving the site.

Chrissy Teigen, the model and television personality, told her 13.7 million Twitter followers this week that she was leaving the site.

Chrissy Teigen, the model and television personality, told her 13.7 million Twitter followers this week that she was leaving the site.

For many of the estimated 34pc of Irish people with a Twitter account, that bruised feeling will be all too familiar. The site can be an angry, aggressive environment where subtlety holds little sway.

Although Facebook has almost twice the number of users in this country as Twitter, it’s the latter that helps drive much of the news agenda. The social media behemoth came into being 15 years ago last weekend and has become a fundamental part of the daily lives of a significant portion of the population.

But, increasingly, more and more of us are taking the path chosen by Teigen and either deleting our Twitter accounts or rationing the amount of time we spend on it.

The phenomenon of social media shaming is writ large on the platform, as are ‘pile-ons’, when swarms of tweeters round on someone deemed to have tweeted something inappropriate or said something offensive.

For one figure in the public eye, being at the receiving end of a Twitter pile-on was among the worst experiences of her life. It was so sustained that she eventually closed her account.

Having spoken on-record to Review, she later asks not to be named for fear of bringing an angry mob upon her again. “I can feel the panic all returning this evening even at the thoughts of it [appearing in print],” she says. “I’m only after getting back on my feet mentally after all of it now and the fear I feel about going back there in my head is too much.”

Initially, this person was an enthusiastic Twitter user, but in recent years she believes it has taken a dark turn.

“I was lucky in that I didn’t get bullied at school, but this had all the hallmarks of that sort of bullying,” she says. “It was horrific and unceasing. I felt completely demonised by what was said. I was called every name under the sun and it was particularly hard to see other women piling on.”

Quitting brought some respite, but the fury kept on coming. “I’d hear about it from people: ‘You’re trending again on Twitter’. I just feel like I’m one of those women who it’s become OK to say whatever you want about.

“Maybe, it’s because I have opinions and I won’t apologise for them. But I’m done with Twitter. There’s such toxicity there. And it’s by far the worst of the social media platforms. I’m still on Instagram — and the interaction from people is entirely different. There’s none of that anger and bullying.”

Psychotherapist Joanna Fortune says public shaming on Twitter can be a frightening and disturbing experience.

“It’s not just one person having a go at you. It’s lots of people — most of them complete strangers. And a lot of them aren’t using their real identities so they feel emboldened to say things, especially to a public figure, that they would never, ever say to their face,” she says.

“You’d want to be made of a particular type of stuff to be able to laugh off the sort of abuse you can get online because anyone with a human heartbeat in them is going to feel it.”

Fortune has long wondered about the peculiar dynamics of the social media pile-on. “I think it’s about power,” she says. “Right now, in this pandemic, there’s a collective sense of powerlessness and while, for instance you might say, ‘I cannot fix racism, but I can certainly fix this one person who said something racist’. And that gives a false sense of empowerment.

“I would love to see someone do a PhD that cross-references all the people who post ‘If you can be anything, be kind’ and the people who ‘cancel’ other people. I think there would be a correlation in the middle of that Venn diagram.”

Heroes and villains

Mark Smyth, another psychologist, believes there has been an increase in social media vitriol since the pandemic began.

“We’re all so much more isolated than before and we’re spending even more time online. We’re feeling under greater stress and we’re venting on platforms like Twitter,” he says.

“What happens on social media is that people get typecast as heroes and villains. Once you’re typecast in that particular role, there’s no room for redemption — the mob has decided that. It’s like the Salem Witch Trials. Once they decided you were a witch, you were branded as that and there was no way out of it.

“Humans have never been infallible in real life and what we do online is an extension of our personalities and, therefore, can’t be infallible.”

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Social justice warrior Linda Hayden landed in hot water when Twitter comments about gay people, Travellers and Romanians were unearthed Social justice warrior Linda Hayden landed in hot water when Twitter comments about gay people, Travellers and Romanians were unearthed

Social justice warrior Linda Hayden landed in hot water when Twitter comments about gay people, Travellers and Romanians were unearthed

Social justice warrior Linda Hayden landed in hot water when Twitter comments about gay people, Travellers and Romanians were unearthed

Twitter, in the ‘Safety and Security’ section of its website, says “being the target of online abuse and bullying is not easy to deal with”. It urges users to unfollow and block. “Abusive accounts often lose interest once they realise that you will not respond,” it says.

Those who receive “unwanted, target and continuous replies on Twitter, and feel it constitutes online abuse” are advised to report it directly to Twitter. Anyone who feels they are in “physical danger” is urged to contact “local law enforcement authorities” and to “document the violent or abusive messages with print-outs or screenshots”.

Stella O’Malley has had her own experience of Twitter brickbats. The Dublin-based psychotherapist was subjected to a pile-on after she made a documentary for Channel 4, Trans Kids, which delved into the thorny area of trans rights.

“There was such fury in it,” she says. “There’s no interest in engaging with the issues; it’s all about shouting loudest. Twitter does not allow for nuanced debate. A lot of the outrage is performative — but it can really affect those on the receiving end.

“It’s like the schoolyard all over again. You have a victim and loads of people piling on because they feel it’s safer to be part of the mob that being on the outside. And, just like the schoolyard, you have bystanders who don’t intervene. On social media, there are people who can see the pile-on happening and believe it to be wrong but they don’t want to say anything in case they bring it upon themselves. It’s like McCarthyism all over again. The victims of the shaming are being dehumanised.”

NUIG student Saoirse Connolly has been at the centre of a social media firestorm this week. The member of the Irish Women’s Lobby has taken a stand on the trans issue in college.

“I have an issue with self-ID,” she says, “this idea that you can just say you are who you are with no medical diagnosis, no therapy. And I have issues with the ‘trans-ing’ of kids.”

A student union motion to de-platform groups such as the Irish Women’s on the grounds that they are far-right has been postponed. But the controversy has spilled out of the university and on to Twitter. “I’ve received a huge amount of support, but a great deal of abuse too,” Connolly says. “I keep my DMs [direct messages] open, and there’s all kinds of nasty stuff there. Predictably, I’m being called a terf,” which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist.

She is adamant that she will not delete her Twitter account, as some have urged her to do. “I want to live in a society where free speech exists and where you can freely debate ideas,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s just an echo chamber.”

Irish Twitter shamings seem to be happening with increasing regularity. Linda Hayden was a voracious tweeter, especially in recent years. She had stood as a Social Democrat candidate in the Kildare South constituency in the 2020 general election, having been feted by the party’s joint leaders Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy for her advocacy for victims of sex abuse.

Hayden was what some would call a ‘social justice warrior’ on Twitter, a person who was quick to highlight perceived poor behaviour by others. Her tweets could be adversarial too, especially when it came to making allegations about figures in the public eye.

Earlier this month, she posted an apology to Ciara Kelly, having made false allegations on Twitter about the Newstalk presenter. Waves of people started tweeting in support for Hayden. At the same time, several of them took aim at Kelly.

Just a couple of days later, Hayden found herself in hot water after several tweets she sent between 2012 and 2014 were unearthed by another Twitter user. She was in her 30s when she made quips about black taxi drivers, Nigerians and ebola. Among her other posts from the time were comments about gay people, Travellers and Romanians.

Having long been perceived to be among those most loudly calling for others to be ‘cancelled’, Hayden found herself in the line of fire. After attempting to defuse the situation by referring to the old tweets as “thick”, she shut down her Twitter account after a pile-on.

‘Fair game’

Social Democrats TDs found themselves inundated with tweets asking for action to be taken. In a statement that did not mention Hayden by name, it acknowledged the furore and said the person at the centre of it was no longer a member of the party.

Hayden declined to comment for this article, saying she was “afraid of reigniting it again now that it’s finally quietened”.

The conservative online journal Gript was among the first media organisations to report her troubles. Its editor John McGuirk says it is “fair game” to unearth historic tweets if he deems them to demonstrate hypocrisy.

Of Linda Hayden, he says: “If those tweets had been uncovered to have been sent by you, what would she have been saying?”

Fianna Fáil senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee had old tweets dug up by Gript in 2019. She later apologised for her offensive comments about Travellers and Brazilians and featuring the words ‘knacker’ and ‘pikey’. The tweets were sent before she entered politics.

Today she would condemn anti-Traveller rhetoric, McGuirk says, but “she was more than happy to engage with that sort of language herself when this kind of atmosphere wasn’t around in society”.

Senator Clifford-Lee did not respond to a request from Review for comment.

Ciaran Brennan, an editor at The Burkean online magazine — which calls itself the “home of free speech in Ireland” — believes the great promise of Twitter and other social media has not come to pass. “While cyber-utopians of the 1990s dreamt of a free marketplace of ideas, what we see now is a splintered and increasingly charged arena dominated by a few monopolised platforms,” he says.

“In Ireland, just like most western nations, it’s hard to apprehend just how much of our politics is dictated by small ideological echo chambers, each becoming more politically charged and Americanised as the years go by.”

Brennan is not optimistic that Twitter will become a more welcoming place for those who fail to subscribe to certain orthodoxies. “It’s less a case of a few zany pink-haired college kids castigating people for using the wrong pronouns,” he says, “but people wielding serious power able to inflict hefty professional damage on you if you break ranks on any issue.”

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