This is about something that happened to me. But it’s not about me. It’s about a system.
Years ago, I sat in a London café with a pal who is much better known than me – a man – and told him not to worry about trolls. I feel so sorry now. If you’re reading this, John, I’m sorry. “If you open a door to the outside, fresh air comes in,” I said, “and there’s sun and a beautiful view and all kinds of potential,” (I was so naïve) “and the trade-off for that is that some slugs might come in, too. But isn’t all the great stuff worth a couple of slugs?”
He agreed, it was. He could handle the odd slug. He reactivated his social media. I think he’s still on there today. I don’t know, because I’m not.
I won’t rehash here what happened to me. If you know, you know. The rest is available on Google. (Here’s one article.) People tend to focus on one or two big peaks in trolling I received – the swarms, ones that made the press, tabloids ringing me for comment – but the truth is, it was daily and sustained for several years. For being pro-choice. For being in an interracial relationship. For having the temerity to be a mouthy woman in the public eye. When I was no longer part of a campaign for change in Ireland, the only recourse for my mental health, relationships, my life, was to remove myself as a target. They were enjoying it far too much and only I had the power to remove myself from the firing line, ruin their fun.
I’m only on Instagram now. Follow me there if you think you’d like photos of my cat.
What’s it like, being at the centre of a storm? It’s like this. Like when a wave rushes in and knocks you down, sucks you in, deprives you of your breath, tumbles you til you don’t know which is earth or sky, then spits you out again.
You don’t know who in the real world to trust, which strangers are your enemies. Your phone becomes a terrifying conduit. It used to be a door to an exciting world. Now it is a door being relentlessly pounded on at all hours, with people outside with weapons and threats, a door that refuses to ever shut, ever. How I longed for the gentler days of occasional slugs.
But it’s not just trolls. When the storm is raging, all contact comes to sound the same. “Didn’t you feel the support? Didn’t that reach you?” Not in that moment, I hate to admit it, no. How could it? A storm batters you at every turn. Thunder fills your ears, there’s salt water in your eyes. As beautiful as any flowers are, you can’t see them, or they’re flattened by the deluge. I am grateful they were there. I know, now, they were there. That keeps me going. But at the time, I had to drown it all out to survive. I was frightened of everything and everyone. The pings themselves were painful, it didn’t matter what they were announcing. A Pavlovian response: bell rings/ I’ve learned that it is poison. I sometimes said the question out loud: “What is it that they want? Is it that they want me dead?” I wondered if I were, if it would stop? Would they be happy then? It’s hard to read this back, but there’s the truth.
“Don’t blame individuals, blame the press.” Oh yes, oh yes. But individuals read. Individuals share. It is a toxic eco-system. Social media creates a storm, the press reports, the socials share the report and on we go. And somewhere, at the centre of the wave, is someone drowning. They might be a good person, they might have done bad things (and need to be held accountable), but a person’s what they are. In nature, when an animal falls, first the large predators come; the ones who stand to benefit the most. They have their fill. Then vultures circle, looking for their bit. Then come hyenas, in it only for a snack, the laugh. And finally the flies: a constant buzz, a picking over, finishing off. Each one has different reasons to be there. Each plays their greater or lesser part in stripping the bones. (I apologise to animals for using them in this analogy. I assure you no real animals were harmed.)
You live your life in hope that Truth Will Out. But when the narrative – your life – is wrested from you with gleeful ill intent and lack of care for you, your health, it is absolutely terrifying. People opine about you, your actions, your words (or lack thereof) as a distraction, an abstract, a fable, and any countering by you would simply serve to keep that story going. So you pull back. Protect yourself. Your loved ones. You learn, to your horror, that silence is the only option: it doesn’t matter what’s true. It doesn’t matter that you’re misrepresented. It doesn’t matter that you’re being dragged, by some, solely for want of a different target that day. It happens to you, and the tide goes out and comes back in with someone else in its swell. Your best hope is to let it wash over you as quickly as possible. The stink stays on you, though. Whether you were an active antagonist or not. It doesn’t matter what you did, or said. The story, now – the truth that will remain – is the wave itself.
We can choose to reinvent this system. Just because we can publicly say everything, doesn’t mean we always should.
HERE IS, IN SOME WAYS, THE MOST IMPORTANT PART: I have NO PATIENCE (let me be all-caps clear) for those crying ‘abuse’ when they’re being asked to be accountable for something they have publicly done. Elected representatives, politicians, anyone targeting minorities, for example. People who are asked to correct or reflect, but have no idea what real constant, dark targeting feels like. People who seem to simply not enjoy being told ‘no’.
That said, when those directly affected by this cruelty, or inaccuracy, or policy call it out, we don’t have to chime in that call out. We can, instead, offer them support. If we ourselves are directly affected, we should be able to call it out. We might then ask for it to be boosted. But when it becomes a maelstrom, back and forth, distortion, little is achieved.
Please, please don’t equate the experience of those of us who’ve been targeted in ways you’ll never experience, never understand, the darkness, the relentlessness of it, the way it reaches into the furthest corners of your life, with being pulled up on an inaccuracy – even if you receive a lot of tweets and some of the tweeters use swears. That’s certainly not on, but it’s absolutely not the same. Please don’t insult us. It really is insulting.
We all mess up. We do bad things. If someone breaks the law, we hope our justice system will deal with them as is right. If it doesn’t, how can we make that system better? More just? But just because we can all comment now, must it be public?
My suggestion is this. That abuse – actual abuse – be dealt with swiftly and firmly by companies that facilitate it. But I must do my part. I am going to try not to click on inflammatory headlines, on publications that seek to profit from people’s pain. I am going to try to send support to those directly involved – privately, if possible – if that might be useful. But if I’m not involved, I may choose silence. I may choose not be one of the tiny cuts that joins with others in a collective wound. I will not prop up a hungry press with my hyena nips.
But that’s just me.
Policing social media sounds kind of scary to me. Who’s doing the policing? What are their beliefs and intentions? No, no, no: I’m not a fan of banning, or silencing, or stopping people having an opinion. I am a fan of personal and collective responsibility. There are clearly times when platforms could take action to curtail harmful or untruthful rhetoric. But we’re learning that they probably won’t, or if they did, harm might be what that they favour. And maybe it’s best to acknowledge that, to leave them out of this discussion, maybe that’s exciting, because then it falls to us. We can’t control what they do, but we do have control over what we choose to consume, or click on, or post. Over jokes that we write, or even just share. Over what we focus on and amplify. Over when it’s useful to speak up, and when to hold on to our (let’s be honest) relatively irrelevant two cents and let the people at the heart of it have the floor. Otherwise, it’s just noise. That, for what it’s worth, is what I’ve learned from being at the centre of the wave, the eye of the storm.
But that’s just me.