Reclaiming The Internet

A couple of weeks ago, I filmed a video cast on anxiety for ‘DAS Podcast’, a group of women calling on a range of voices to comment on issues relating to feminism, politics and negotiating this bizarre thing we call modern life. According to research conducted by charities, anxiety disproportionately affects women and particularly those in their 20s and 30s. It’s also steeped in stigma, often wrongly perceived as ‘weakness’ (which is why, incidentally, I thought it was important to write about my own experience of panic attacks for this month’s Cosmo, which you can read here: http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/body/health/news/a44518/natasha-devon-mental-health-campaigner-suffers-panic-attacks/)

Anyway, none of this is the point of this blog. During filming, Charlie who was interviewing me for DAS said something that gave me pause. We were talking about both belonging to a bizarre ‘sandwich’ generation of not-quite millennial enough to be proper ‘Millennials’. Charlie said you can usually determine a person’s age to by asking them whether they ‘go’ online or simply ‘are’ online. This ties in with a study conducted by Professor Rachel Thompson in 2013, in which she hypothesised that young people see social media as being just as ‘real’ as their three dimensional existences. They do not ‘dip in’ to their social media in the way people older than them do. In fact, Prof Thompson claims, they ‘dip out’ for activities like school and family meals. I remember finding that vaguely terrifying, at the time.

When professional far right-wing irritant Milo Yiannopoulos was issued a life-long ban from Twitter last week, I saw widespread evidence of the way his young followers perceive social media. Milo, for those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with his work, describes himself as a ‘Conservative Libertarian’, which in reality means he is unapologetically racist and an outspoken opponent of anything vaguely feminist. He writes and edits the website Breitbart. Breitbart’s articles make the Daily Mail look like the Guardian. After the attacks in Orlando, Milo wrote gleefully that he told us so and this is what happens when society prioritises Islam over gays. Earlier in the year, he created a Twitter poll asking his followers whether they would rather their hypothetical daughters had feminism or cancer.

According to his friends, Milo doesn’t believe anything he says and is merely cashing in on the anger of a disenfranchised demographic of frustrated young men. Indeed, Laurie Penny, who you would think would be diametrically opposed to Milo in every conceivable way, describes him as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘quite sweet, to his friends’. (She also concedes that this ‘doesn’t matter’ because ‘the damage he causes is real’.)

Milo was ultimately banned for a sustained attack on Leslie Jones, star of the new Ghostbusters movie, in which he and his followers employed racist and misogynist language ultimately deemed unacceptable by Twitter. What followed were inevitable cries of ‘free speech’ and demands for Milo to be reinstated.

Putting aside the argument over whether the right to free speech includes the right to hate speech and what differentiates the two, what struck me most was that Milo’s supporters essentially saw no difference between social media and ‘society’. Milo hasn’t been deported or thrown in the clink. Twitter is a private business owned by people who reserve the right to chuck you out if you contravene their rules and regulations. Free speech is a mute point in this context because Twitter does not have to abide by the same rules as civilisation more generally.

I’m pleased that there has been a move to ‘reclaim the internet’ and that racist, violent, misogynist and homophobic language is being taken more seriously. The people who perpetrate this kind of behaviour often argue that it’s ‘obvious’ they wouldn’t carry out their threats in reality. Whilst it might be obvious to them, one cannot ever know the full gamut of the recipient’s experiences. The chances are if they are a woman, gay or an ethnic minority, they have at one time or another felt genuinely threatened. And that’s when you lose the ability to see any of what is apparently irony or humour in so-called ‘fake’ threats on the internet.

It’s worth noting at this point that the belief that their threats won’t be taken seriously it as odds with the earlier premise of social media being inextricable from reality. But that’s a bit of cognitive dissonance for another day.

What I’m currently pondering, is that grey area in between normal social media discourse and obvious trolling. In Grazia Mag this week, I was asked to comment on the Twitter spat between Khloe Kardashian and Chloe Moretz. For those that missed it, Khloe posted a picture of Chloe in a red bikini next to a picture of a very similar looking woman, also in a red bikini, having a wardrobe malfunction and therefore her nether regions exposed. Khloe did this because of a perceived slight on her sister Kim, when Chloe waded in on the long-running dispute between Kim’s husband Kanye West and Taylor Swift (are you keeping up?).

This wasn’t trolling of the Milo persuasion, but it was bullying. It was a deliberate attempt to shame a young woman for having a perfectly legitimate opinion (namely that in today’s political climate celebs should have better things to use their multi-million user platforms for than spats about lyrics) and Chloe would have undoubtedly felt the negative effects. Like farting in a lift, Khloe’s behaviour wasn’t illegal, but it wasn’t something most polite people would do.

As much as we need to educate children, who are wading into the online world ever-younger and less-prepared, about the legalities of social media, sexting and online content, I believe this is as much about manners. And it’s up to us, the social media users, to make it clear what we find acceptable, what we don’t and to lead by example.

If I was Queen of Everything the lines of acceptability would be drawn thusly:

  • You can criticise someone’s opinion, but not their gender, sexuality, race, appearance or disabilities.
  • If you must make a snidey remark about someone, don’t tag them in it.
  • Think about why you are posting – is it to make a valid point or is it a deliberate attempt to cause distress? What are you hoping to achieve and what does that say about you?
  • Quantity – If you are posting about the recipient constantly, whether you tag them or not this ultimately constitutes trolling. Also you should probably have other hobbies.

I’m not immune from the odd ‘haha! Look at this idiot!’ comment on social media, but I believe I generally adhere to the rules set out above.

For me, social media is a way to learn and connect with like-minded people but it is, above all, a means of having fun. With that in mind, it’s our responsibility to play nice.

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