The Rise of Social Media has Turbocharged Abuse

Since the Internet never forgets, and people on the Internet tend not to forgive I’ve been wondering lately what the value of social media is, especially when it seems so good at magnifying hate and making all of us just that bit nastier. Even those who oppose hate rhetoric can get caught up in the maelstrom.

Stop Funding Hate is a UK organisation that campaigns to put an end to the divisive hate campaigns of newspapers like the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express by persuading advertisers to pull their support. Their Twitter feed states clearly at the top “Don’t hate the media – change the media.”

But a tweet from them caught my eye the other day as they urged some of their followers to tone it down.

It’s a good example of how easily even individuals who support ending hate can get drawn into using abusive and hate-filled language. Social media makes it so easy for all of us to lash out, but the righteous outrage with which we greet views contrary to our own only seems to fuel division.

Amplifying messages of hate has become more effective than ever in our thumbs up, thumbs down culture. Ever since Donald Trump’s election the Alt-Right have been handed the world's loudest megaphone, as racists and bigots everywhere are given a license to hate. On Facebook, Twitter and other tech and media platforms, clashes between belligerent conservatives and morally indignant liberals can quickly turn into angry and ugly cultural warfare.

Daily newspapers find their place within this landscape too through the normalisation of hate propaganda. Often the language of the Daily Mail isn’t so much about upholding opposite views, as a kind of verbal lynching of people the newspaper disagrees with - often judges and MPs doing their jobs. This kind of measured intimidation has almost certainly contributed to some public figures receiving death threats. Public discourse thus turns into heavy weaponry and is more about upholding positions than transforming opinions. As Tina Nguyen recently wrote in Vanity Fair’s The Hive: “The Internet, for all its democratizing potential, tends to amplify the loudest voices in the room.” In this disturbing article she reveals just how much Twitter and Facebook have fanned the flames of partisanship at Yale University. Social media is a huge reason why the centre doesn’t hold because people who try to put forward more middle-ground arguments know they are only going to get abuse and increasingly choose to say nothing.

Nor is the left immune to peddling hate. While personally I think the world is a more sinister and dangerous place since Donald Trump came to power, seeing a picture of the US president and his wife posted on Twitter with the words: “I really really thought you’d be dead by now” scrawled across it, only adds to the cycle of poisonous rhetoric and doesn’t make me feel remotely better.

I understand the intense satisfaction in name-calling and in hurling insults but if many more of us could resist the toxic comments sections and dial down the outrage what a different world this could be. It is not about occupying the moral high ground but realising that lashing out in retaliation only serves to make things worse.

Brené Brown believes we use the language of shame out of desperation. On her Facebook Live video We need to keep talking about Charlottesville she said: “Every time we dehumanize someone it rips a little piece of our soul apart. Shaming the enemy is like wanting to hurt someone by putting poison in the water supply. You’re going to have to drink that water too! What we should do is spend time and energy holding those people accountability.”

Brené Brown states clearly that she is not in favour of the dehumanisation of any single person, regardless of who they are. That can be an unpopular position to take but there is plenty of proof that by not rising to the bait and refusing to meet hate with hate, tension and hurt start to diminish. Peaceful solutions to conflict quite literally defuse incendiary situations.

I learnt this basic principle from one of the first stories I collected for The Forgiveness Project. In 1997 Camilla Carr and Jon James were taken hostage in Chechnya, during which time Camilla was repeatedly raped by one of her jailers. She only survived the horror of each attack by saying to herself over again, “You can never touch the essence of me – my body is only part of who I am.” Her partner knew too that to fight back would only make the situation much worse and explains that while in his dreams he murdered the jailer several times, “throughout our ordeal, I continued to hold back my emotion, because I had learned from practicing martial arts that to overcome your opponent you should meet hardness with softness. Knowing this saved my life.

I’ve often been told by people that forgiveness simply serves to condone and encourage bad behaviour. Of course this can happen (particularly in abusive intimate relationships) but equally forgiveness has the power to rehabilitate a relationship as well as restore our sense of self.

Another Forgiveness Project storyteller, Arno Michaelis, a former prominent white supremacist who at one time radiated violence and hostility towards anyone with a darker skin than his own, told me about his turning point. “One day I was greeted by a black lady at a McDonald’s cash register with a smile as warm and unconditional as the sun. When she noticed the swastika tattoo on my finger, she simply said: ‘You’re a better person than that. I know that’s not who you are.’” Powerless against such compassion he fled from her “steady smile and authentic presence”, never to return to that McDonald’s again.

Filmmaker, Deeya Khan’s, recent documentary White Right: Meeting the Enemy is an extraordinary insight into what can happen when instead of responding to hate with loathing you sit down and have a conversation. By the end of her documentary one extremely dangerous and hate-filled white power leader has started to have second thoughts precisely because Khan did not hurl abuse at him, but instead calmly and consciously called him out on some of his more loathsome views, but also listened.

Another fascinating example of meeting hardness with softness is in a video that recently went viral showing how the more upset and angry you get with people who deliberately hurt your feelings, the more fun the bully has. Allowing hateful, mean words to bounce right off you is the most disarming and effective response to bullying says the social skills and conflict resolution educator Brooks Gibbs.

All of this makes me convinced that while it is important to call people out and hold organisations accountable, resorting to hate and name-calling, or matching death threat with death threat, only keeps things at boiling point. Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Angela Rayner, recently had some unlikely advice for victims of online trolls like herself. Rather than hit back she said, “If you plant a seed of love or affection you can create an environment where people feel tremendously better, and you will feel better by doing that as well - I promise you!”

In a similar vein James Melville, a marketing specialist who has received his fair share of venomous attacks on social media, posted this tweet the other day.

In 2018 I plan to follow his lead!

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