One of the biggest benefits of social media, whenever you raise the topic of what changes social media has enabled in the bigger picture, is that of freedom of voice for everyone.

No longer are brands the only ones who have a pulpit to spread a message. Now, everyone from non-profits to small businesses to individuals have the  same opportunities to say something and have that message spread far and wide.

On the one hand, this is a great leveller – if brands are guilty of questionable practices, now they can be held accountable through blog posts, public forums and social communities.

Yet, as much as this is the positive side of social media’s democratization of the web, it also allows anyone with a social account and an axe to grind to wield that axe more powerfully.

Often, they’ll use the argument, “But it’s free speech, I can say what I want.” And, to a degree, that’s true. Yet it’s also not quite as simple as that. Hiding behind free speech won’t stop you from being sued for your opinion; nor will it protect you in court under journalism rules.

However, that kind of free speech is usually used for opinions and counter-opinions.

It’s when that free speech moves from strong opinion into hate, vitriol and bullying that the bigger problem arises. And it’s a problem that seems to be escalating.

The Bear Pit Frenzy of Social Media Mobs

If you’re online in any capacity, you’ve probably heard of the Justine Sacco case. A high-flying executive with a global agency, she was leaving for Africa when she tweeted out the following:


While the tweet was offensive and idiotic, and was rightly condemned (Sacco was fired from her position), what followed on social, especially Twitter, was just as offensive.

Instead of criticizing the tweet, and looking at ways to offer perhaps education or counterpoints to the racist overtones, the hate mob descended.

Twitter-DunkDa_G-My-Africans-gonn-rape-u-n-leave-... Twitter-Phislash-Somebody-HIV-must-rape-this-... Anger at the tweet is understandable, especially if it’s your country that’s been tarnished. Hate and condoning sexual assault, though? Is that even excusable?

Some saw it as an opportunity to get their own racist point of view in.


While there were examples of people calling for an end to the vitriol, it continued, and instead of a moment of clarity where we could have discussed racism and using social media to counter it, we were left with a lynch mob that seemed to delight in adding even more to the levels of bullying that were already forming.

Yet perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

When We Glorify Bullying

In late November, just a few weeks before Sacco tweeted her infamous update, the producer of The Bachelor TV show, Elan Gale, tweeted about his kerfuffle with a fellow airline passenger.

Gale was trying to get home for Thanksgiving and the plane had run into issues on the ground. His following tweets were directed at a passenger named “Diane”, who was agitated about missing the family dinner. Gale thought it was selfish of her when so many others were in the same boat.

What followed was a note exchange between the two, that escalated into insults and then this note by Gale, which he tweeted to his followers:

So a guy has a falling out with someone, a stranger in a public place, and resorts to sexual slurs to antagonize her? Which is then celebrated by over 2,600 people who favourite it. And elicits tweets like this:

Twitter-theyearofelan-My-response-to-Diane-in-7A-... Twitter-KarleeKanz-theyearofelan-Selfish-little-...

Thankfully(?), the exchange between Gale and Diane never happened – Gale later confessed he made it up. However, the perceived bullying via the sexual slur, and the fact so many people celebrated it, perhaps offers an idea as to why social media is fast turning into a megaphone for lynch mobs.

Free Speech Or The Road to Bullying?

As mentioned earlier, social media has been lauded for the way it allows anyone with a social footprint to share their point of view. The trouble with anything that offers this kind of untethered “freedom” is that it often leads to untethered hate.

Instead of needing the bravery (stupidity?) to face someone head on and in person, the web allows the comfort of a screen and being thousands of miles away from the target of their abuse.

Instead of leading to mature discussions around common goals, frustrations and injustices, it’s led to the bear pit mentality that we seem to be seeing more of. Ironically, as social media matures, the audience seems to be going the other way.

This type of “protection” has led to some tragic results.

The well-documented suicides of teens like Rehtaeh Parsons, a Canadian 17-year old who was raped and then mocked mercilessly on social media until she could take no more; or 14-year old Hannah Smith, who took her own life after months of bullying on social network

It continues. Attacks on people for standing up to sexual inappropriateness; the escalation of anger into bullying and death threats (much like the Sacco example earlier).

These are just some examples of where social media is being used as a bully pulpit.

Do insensitive and racist/bigoted comments need calling out? Yes. Does that mean any subsequent anger is okay to descend into bullying and mob mentality, though? A resounding no.

While we may feel it’s funny to latch onto a trending topic or viral event, it’s all too easy to forget in the heat of the moment what the eventual outcome may be.

And, as the sad cases of Rehtaeh Parsons and Hannah Smith and others like them shows, this pulpit doesn’t end with emotional upset by the victim…

image: kid-josh

A version of this post was originally published on the Punk Views on Social Media blog.

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  1. says

    We should simply be sociable, some people have a problem with that and see it as an opportunity to bully. It’ll spike and after a while they’ll calm down and someone else will come along and do the same thing.

    That’s life, but by putting themselves out there they show others how immature and idiotic they are.

    I am all for free speech as it provides case studies.

  2. says

    I followed the Elan Gale thing as it was happening and was disgusted—by him and by the mob piling on. Of course, I then became part of the mob piling on atop him, so I suppose that doesn’t make me any better. Then I felt like a sucker for being taken in by the whole thing in the first place. Maybe I’ll make it a resolution to do more breathing and thinking before reacting online!

    • says

      Oh, please Chris. I shared a photo I thought funny. I had a conversation with a gay friend who disagreed (and we both agreed that a bigger conversation around what was humour and what wasn’t humour was needed). Several close friends (all gay) agreed it was not homophobic, nor a gay slur. You were unfriended and blocked because of the tasteless comments you made. So, if you want to criticize, please do – but make sure you get your facts straight.

        • says

          Again, your memory seems distorted. Both Chris (the friend in question) and I had a very good conversation about whether the picture (a sports fan holding up an amended banner) was homophobic or not, and an even deeper conversation about what is classed as homophobic (again, relating to the picture, humour, etc).

          If you want to continue to offer your tainted version, feel free to. However, it will not be continued within these comments. You have a very limited view as to what further discussions took place and, as mentioned, you were unfriended and blocked for your own tasteless comparisons.

  3. says

    While there is some freedom of expression on social media, you should still do your best to at least be sensitive to all the people who will read your status updates. I won’t call that bullying as she is insensitive in the first place. I’d say she is the initial bully.

  4. says

    Great article! I guess people do have the right to be “stupid”. A comment is not a “hate” crime unless you threaten to do bodily harm, no?
    I can not stress it enough how parents should teach their kids about the dangers of social media. Posting party pictures or racey pictures is going to live on a server somewhere for a looong time. Social media like Facebook is allowing you to document every moment of your life. Why would anyone want to do that for the world to see….

    People need to be educated! Period!

    • says

      The recent debacle with SnapChat, and how it’s users’ data could be accessed even when it had been “deleted”, says all you need to know about so-called privacy and protection on the web. Here’s to more awareness being raised.

  5. says

    Even by your standards, this post kicks butt.

    The assumed anonymity of the Internet has allowed spineless scumbags to pick on people or say things, which they would never say offline.

    Thanks for flagging this up, Danny.

    You have balls the size of coconuts. I salute you… and your coconuts!


    A fan.

    • says

      Cheers, mate. What really disappoints is the reaction (or lack of) by the networks. Facebook in particular seems to have a very strange perception of what’s free speech, and what’s a hate group attacking.

      The thing with social media is it’s just reflecting human behaviour – assholes offline will remain assholes online, but in a bigger capacity. The networks really need to stand up and draw the line.

      Hope you’re having a great weekend!

      • says

        Hi Danny,

        Sound points there. Facebook, based on what it does rather than what it says, is PURELY in it for whatever makes most money. Those nasty posts often get huge volumes of traffic, which Facebook turns into ad revenue. Their action in terms of social responsibility are laughable… or would be, if their neglect wasn’t causing so much pain to so many people.

        Thanks again for making a difference, mate.

  6. Troy Brooks says

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  7. abacaxicara says

    Why expect more from humans? The average human is a sadistic, cruel, foolish sheep. We are not that far removed from apes although some of us do manage to transcend our base natures. Emphasis on some

  8. karena says

    This is exactly what I was looking for – I am becoming increasingly concerned with this issue and you really put some extra clarity on it for me Danny – thank you :-)