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