Charlotte Dawson: Social media on trial
The fact that Charlotte Dawson has been hospitalised after sustaining a particularly putrid and distressing wave of online abuse should force a serious discussion about our air-headed enthusiasm for social media.
On one hand, social media has created a terrific vehicle for like-minded people to come together and share their lives and discuss issues of common interest. At the same time, the ability to have unfettered communication with total strangers has created an easy and powerful platform for the maladjusted to have twisted sport at the expense of others.
Some people can shrug it off. Many cannot. Charlotte Dawson is in the latter category. This woman, who has never done anything to upset anyone, clearly became fixated on the bile being sent her way, in some cases by crackpots who had no Twitter followers but had simply set up accounts with the express intention of teasing and abusing people such as her.
There have been many similar cases over the past 12 months where social media has become the vehicle for bullying and harassment, or where people in the public eye have become distraught over the constant commentary about their lives. Hundreds of people were today using Twitter to bemoan the practice of trolling and to send their support to Dawson. This is kind of nice, I suppose, but will do nothing to change the fact that their beloved social media sites are the preferred modern venue for the dissemination of hate, ridicule, and uninvited discussion about people’s lives.
During the Olympics, some of our youngest athletes became so obsessed with what people were saying about them on social media, for good or for ill, that it affected their ability to compete. The young swimmer Emily Seebohm got it into her head that a silver medal was a sign of failure, saying she had become so fixated on the online discussion around her that the pressure was too much to bear.
Radio host Chrissie Swan gave a brave and honest interview in the mainstream media where she talked about her weight and that of her young son. Not only was she vilified on Twitter by total strangers, she even faced abuse from another celebrity, Neighbours actress Ashleigh Brewer, who accused Swan of being a bad parent. Brewer subsequently issued a genuine and heartfelt apology, which Swan not only accepted but used as the basis for a plea for an end all the name-calling. The episode showed the perverse cyclical nature of abuse on forums like Twitter, where Brewer’s initial comments flushed out the haters to pile in on Swan, and once she had apologised, a new group of haters homed in on Brewer as a heartless bitch.
The Dawson case is in a much more serious category. She is now being treated in St Vincents. This episode confirms the truly evil nature of that small army of anonymous creeps who lurk in the corners of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook ready to attack unsuspecting people at any time, be it hacking a memorial page for a dead kid or going after a celebrity.
There is a lesson in this for those who wilfully surrender their privacy and choose to live every aspect of their lives in a wholly public setting. These days, that is almost everyone under the age of 25. It is the kind of thing which understandably alarms parents, and rightly so, as while there is debate among experts around whether the rate of bullying has increased, decreased, or stayed the same, there is agreement that modern bullying often has a much more sinister and pervasive nature because it is conducted via the permanently switched-on world of social media.
The other feature of the Dawson case is that it confirms how the people who operate these massive multi-billion-dollar social media enterprises have no effective methods in place or not even any interest in maintaining an environment where people are shielded from abuse. The fact that it took Facebook a fortnight to pull down a page describing Aborigines as petrol-sniffing bludgers is a case in point. In their giddy enthusiasm for new media, social media tragics fail to recognise that the sites they adore are often the venue for stuff which would never get within coo-ee of publication in the mainstream media.
Those of us in the journalistic mainstream should also think harder about our attitude towards social media and online commentary. The scourge of the anonymous commenter has almost destroyed the concept of civil disagreement. At the website where I work we spend half our lives deleting comments or encouraging people to use their real names, but the tone still often makes you despair. It is the same across cyberspace.
One other thing – hopefully the Dawson case will spell an end to those lazy modern news stories which begin “A Twitter storm has erupted over x”, because a Twitter storm is erupting over x at any given time. Mainly because Twitter is home to so many cranks with no lives, no manners, nothing to offer but sick abuse, all of it published freely and without legal consequence in an environment where the cashed-up proprietors conveniently absolve themselves of any responsibility.
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