I almost deleted my Twitter account last week.
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh noes, someone who hardly uses Twitter, other than to shamelessly self-promote, is thinking of leaving it: how will Twitter cope?!”
It’s true, too: I am, indeed, a shameless self-promoter. The only reason I still have a Twitter account is because it’s how some of my readers choose to follow my blog. Enough people do this for it to be worth keeping the account running, although it’s almost totally automated these days, because even on the rare occasions when I DO want to post something there, I’m often too scared to: the atmosphere there often seems so hostile – almost as if people are just waiting for someone to say something mildly controversial, just so they can be outraged by it – that I find myself over-thinking every one of those 140 characters, and normally not posting them at all.
Now, I don’t often say anything controversial on Twitter – mild or otherwise. Sometimes, though, you don’t even have to be controversial in order to invoke the ire of the Twitter hive mind. The morning after the Manchester bombing, for instance, I logged onto Twitter, expecting to see people talking about the attack, and expressing their horror at the senseless loss of so many lives. To be fair, there was plenty of that (and also plenty of people offering up spare beds and lifts home, which, in the interests of balance, was really nice to see, and an example of Twitter at its best)… but there were also plenty of people just talking about how other people were talking about the attack – and judging them quite harshly for it.
On Twitter, you see, it was considered NOT APPROPRIATE to post anything not related to the attack that day. If your blog was set to auto-tweet links to your posts (Mine is, but, luckily for me, I’d been awake when the news started to come through, and was able to switch them off…), and you hadn’t instantly put a stop to this, you were the lowest of the low, and deserved to be verbally abused by everyone who happened to see one of those ill-timed tweets. There was no excuse for this. Never mind that the attack happened late at night, and a lot of people didn’t hear about it until the next morning, by which time scheduled blog posts/tweets had already gone out. Never mind that most people’s first thoughts when they did hear about the tragedy probably didn’t revolve around their blogs/Twitter accounts: there was, quite literally NO EXCUSE. If you dared – whether deliberately or not – to tweet about ANYTHING other than the attack, you were utter scum according to the Twitter hive mind, who were all busy mourning much harder, and much more appropriately than you.
It was honestly quite depressing.
As I said, I switched off my scheduled tweets as soon as I knew what had happened (I hate that this WAS the first thing I thought of, but it was purely because I’ve seen people be attacked over auto-tweets so many times now that I knew that if I didn’t, I’d wake up to abuse…), so my reaction to this isn’t a personal one – I was just really saddened to see so much in-fighting and bitchiness over something SO insignificant (Seriously, who cares that someone forgot to switch off their tweet scheduler? Why does it automatically mean that they must be evil and selfish, rather than just meaning they were away from their computer at the time or – shock horror – it just didn’t enter their mind in the horror of that moment?), at a time when it seemed to me that people should be standing together, and supporting each other.
That’s social media for you, though: if there’s an opportunity to berate someone for their “insensitivity” in order to prove how much more sensitive YOU are, then why not go for it, without even a shred of irony? Why indeed.
Then came the general election – which made the whole, “Only Evil Nazis Post Scheduled Tweets During a Tragedy,” thing seem really quite reasonable.
It started off innocently enough, with people urging each other to vote: which is admirable, although probably somewhat redundant, given the echo chamber that Twitter is for most of us. Still, voting is important, and if even one person was encouraged to register because of something they read on Twitter, then I’m all for it.
I’m much less in favour of what happened NEXT, however – and which happened in a very short space of time, too. Over the course of just a few short days, I saw the “PLEASE VOTE!” tweets on my timeline change to, “PLEASE VOTE, BUT ONLY IF YOU’RE GOING TO VOTE FOR THE PARTY I TELL YOU TO VOTE FOR!” Or, “PLEASE VOTE… UNLESS YOU’RE PLANNING TO VOTE FOR X PARTY, IN WHICH CASE YOU’RE A MORON.”
I’m honestly not exaggerating here. I literally saw people telling their followers they shouldn’t vote if they weren’t prepared to do as they were told, and vote for the candidate/party the tweeter was endorsing. I saw liberal use of the word “moron” – and various other insults designed to effectively shame people into toeing the line and voting a certain way. It was truly disturbing to witness – and after the election, it only got worse, with people hurling abuse at anyone and everyone who had voted “inappropriately” in their view. At this point, people started to call each other “c*nts” and talk about wanting to punch each other in the face, which was… disturbing.
“I literally saw people telling their followers they shouldn’t vote if they weren’t prepared to do as they were told, and vote for the candidate/party the tweeter was endorsing. I saw liberal use of the word “moron” – and various other insults designed to effectively shame people into toeing the line and voting a certain way.”
Ordinarily, I’d say this is the kind of problem that has a very simple solution. I’ve always thought the best thing about social networks like Twitter is that they can be whatever you want them to be: i.e. if you don’t like what someone posts, don’t follow them. I don’t do ‘follow-for-follow’, or believe in following people just to be polite, and, for the most part, that works pretty well for me. I rarely see racist or homophobic tweets, for instance, although I know they exist, because I don’t follow people who are racist or homophobic – it’s as simple as that.
In this case, however, the tweets that have bothered me so much have been coming from people I LIKE. People I respect. People I’ve known for years, and who I would not have imagined ever calling other people “morons” or “c*nts” because they didn’t vote the same way as them. Most confusingly of all, these are the same people who, just a week earlier, had been talking about democracy, and the importance of exercising the right to vote, but who now seemed to hold the very undemocratic view that anyone who’d voted differently from them deserved to be “punched in the face,” because they were SO OBVIOUSLY EVIL. I mean, seriously?
I find this viewpoint really hard to understand. In “real life” I have several friends and family members who hold very different political views from me (I’m talking about party politics here, not fundamental beliefs…). I don’t share or particularly understand their views, but I can say with 100% certainty that none of those people hold those views because they’re “evil morons” who actively want others to suffer. They’re also not “selfish c*nts” who only care about themselves, and nor are they “uneducated halfwits” who haven’t bothered to think about the issues they’re voting on. (These are all real insults I’ve seen over the past few days, by the way: mostly on Twitter, but also on Facebook.)
Actually, they’re kind, normal people who just happen to have different political views from me – mostly because they have different backgrounds or life experiences. They are not evil, or bad or even wrong – and although I might not agree with their views, I will always defend their right to have them, and to vote however they wish: that’s the very foundation of our democracy, and without it, we have nothing. You can’t have democracy if you’re not prepared to tolerate differences of opinion, or if you’re just going to try to bully people into voting the way YOU say they should: it doesn’t work like that.
And yes, everyone has the right to express their opinion, and to discuss the issues that are important to them: there’s a big difference, however, between saying, “This is why I think you should consider voting this way,” and saying, “If you don’t vote this way, you deserve to be slapped.” Obviously. All week I’ve been seeing people self-righteously explain that people died for the right to vote: yes, they did, and I’m sure they’d die TWICE if they thought that right was being eroded by social media bullies who feel that their opinion is the only one that counts.
“You can’t have democracy if you’re not prepared to tolerate differences of opinion, or if you’re just going to try to bully people into voting the way YOU say they should: it doesn’t work like that.”
Just to be clear – and because I know that people are going to read this and make assumptions that aren’t actually true- I’m not writing this because my own feelings were hurt by any of those tweets. I actually share the political views of most of the people I follow on Twitter (As I said, it’s an echo chamber, and I’m as guilty as anyone else of mostly following like-minded people, who have similar values and beliefs to me): I consider myself to be pretty left wing/liberal, and I completely understand the feelings of hurt and even anger in the country at the moment. I think it’s been obvious for a long time now that there’s a real division in our society right now, and it’s hard not to feel utterly helpless and frustrated in the face of that. I get it: I really do.
While I haven’t taken any of the aggressive, intolerant tweets I’ve seen personally, however, I have been offended by them, because it’s just so far removed from the values of tolerance and democracy that most of us hold dear – or claim to, at least. I know the answer is to just unfollow the people who say these things, and I normally would: but, in this case, it would mean unfollowing people I generally like and respect – and quite a lot of them, too. So I’m writing this post instead, rather than simply biting my tongue, as I’ve been doing all week.
This is a difficult time for the UK, and for the whole world, really… but attacking each other isn’t the answer, and it doesn’t really work, either: I’ve seen numerous people be attacked on social media for daring to say they might vote in a way not endorsed by the hive mind, but I’ve yet to see a single one of them say, “You know what? Being called a ‘stupid c*nt’ has totally changed my mind on this: THANKS, TWITTER, I SEE THE LIGHT!” As my mum always says, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar: and as everyone’s mum always says, it’s nice to be nice. Or, at least, it’s certainly nicer than being eaten up with hatred.
I’m just going to finish this by noting that obviously NOT EVERYONE ON TWITTER IS LIKE THIS, and if you’re NOT like this on Twitter, then this post is obviously, obviously NOT ABOUT YOU. I feel like this should go without saying, but I’ve noticed that any time I post an opinion piece, I’ll be criticised by people who feel I haven’t done enough to present a balanced view of whatever it is I’m talking about, almost as if they think I’m writing an academic paper or detailed legal analysis or something. This post is neither of those things, obviously: it’s a personal opinion, based on my own, entirely subjective experiences. No, not everyone on Twitter has been going around wishing a painful death on those they feel didn’t vote appropriately in the general election – but enough people HAVE been doing that for me to have been really quite shocked by it, and to want to speak up about it. Thanks for listening.