On July 30, Tom Daley, an Olympic diver and one of Great Britain's medal hopes, finished in fourth place (with his partner) in the 10-meter synchronized platform competition. Quite soon after Daley failed to secure a medal, a Twitter user decided to taunt him. "You let your dad down I hope you know that" @Rileyy_69 tweeted, a reference to Daley's father who died last year of brain cancer.
Daley retweeted the message, saying, “After giving it my all...you get idiot’s sending me this.” Outraged, Daley’s legions of fans on Twitter rallied to his defense and told @Rileyy_69 exactly what they thought of him. @Rileyy_69 at first apologized to Daley, but then threatened to drown the diver in the pool. (You can see a timeline of @Rileyy's tweets here
The next day, the British police swooped in and arrested the unnamed teenager (the rights and wrongs of that are another issue entirely). He later received a police harassment warning.
While @Rileyy_69’s tweets were idiotic and extremely unpleasant, what was most unsettling was to see how quickly Twitter users came to resemble a lynch mob. Despite all its moral indignation and self-righteousness about the @Rileyy_69 tweets, the mob defending Daley’s honor was equally resplendent in its viciousness. The mob called for his death; people spared no creativity in the ways in which they hoped he would be raped in prison.
Then the more sophisticated elements of the Internet hate machine went into overdrive -- smelling blood, the ambulance-chasers of the meme world and the snarkistas had a new victim. Now @Rileyy_69 was the meme. Videos of him were mashed up and set to music, (here
), his stupider utterances were Photoshopped onto his more gormless photos, and the tweets of abuse just kept on coming: from other teenagers looking for a fights (digital and real), from lovesick teen girls who felt their beau had been attacked, and from plenty of responsible adults. The people of the Internet fought back. Yeah! Right?
The writers’ association PEN praised Tom Daley for retweeting the insult
as it was better than involving the law:
Robert Sharp, from English Pen, a writers’ association which campaigns for free expression in print and online, said that Daley’s decision to publicize the comments rather than to make a complaint to the police had been the appropriate course of action.
He said: “People often choose to express themselves in this manner and the police cannot investigate every outburst. In the case of Tom Daley, one has to ask whether these tweets were genuine threats to another person, or simply a rant.
"Tom Daley showed a lot of class in responding to the trolls. He re-tweeted the offensive comments and the Twitter troll received a social humiliation at the hands of Tom’s many fans."
Sharp is right: Social humiliation is exactly what it’s about, although I would disagree that Daley is showing “class” here (that would be ignoring it). The mob can smell blood in the air -- it wants to see @Rileyy_69 humiliated, to see him hung, drawn, and quartered by Photoshop and on YouTube. While I’m sure he didn’t mean it like this, Daley’s retweet sent out a "bat signal" to his followers, a digital wolf whistle, an implicit blessing that it was now fine to put @Rileyy_69 in the stocks and throw tomatoes at him.
Sadly, the specter of the angry mob is all too familiar on Twitter. Depending on your politics and on where your outrage meter is set, many are likely justified and righteous causes, while others little more than tempests in teapots.
In recent days there have been “Twitter fury” stories aplenty on the criticism of NBC over its Olympics coverage
, the related story of a British journalist getting temporarily booted off Twitter
for tweeting the e-mail address of an NBC executive, a “Wall Street Journal” columnist making insensitive comments
following the Aurora shootings, and a British comedian getting into hot water with some of the Twitterati for saying a British swimmer had a face like a dolphin
. Much of it is done under the banner of that tired old meme, the meat and potatoes of geek-snark: #Fail.
In the days of old media, for most of us outrage was a private commodity. It was something we shared with partners or friends or the dog. We ranted, and if we were lucky enough someone listened. I could write a letter maybe, or phone the television station, or write letters to politicians, or go walking through the streets wearing a sandwich board. Now, of course, I can tweet directly to the very subject of my ire.
While our levels of outrage might not have changed, there is something about the medium of Twitter that seems to combust and amplify outrage. With its 140-character limit, Twitter rewards pithy populists and eschews nuance. The transaction costs of participation have been almost reduced to zero, so piling onto a cause (whether it’s calling for intervention in Syria or calling for @Rileyy_69’s death) doesn’t cost you much time or effort.
The anonymity -- real and perceived -- can also fuel outrage. Even if you’re using your real name on Twitter, hashtag dynamics can resemble a real crowd: as it pulsates through the streets, steadily increasing in number, it can provide you with cover; sometimes that protection is real, sometimes it is just a perception of invincibility through anonymity. That’s one reason why people in crowds get carried away and do things they wouldn’t do normally in their everyday lives, like smashing windows or throwing rocks at the police. They do that too with hashtags.
Writing about an audience at SXSW rebelling against a keynote, Kim Hinckley writes
Mobs form when individuals feel anonymous, and believe that their feelings and behaviors are shared by others. When the behavior becomes visible, and when nobody reacts negatively to it, the behavior gets amplified, with more and more people joining in.
When thousands of people are threatening to break @Rileyy_69’s legs, then I can probably get away with it as well, or so the thinking goes. But I might not make that threat if I saw @Rileyy_69 in the street. One of the paradoxes of social media is that it can simultaneously make people closer, but yet somehow more remote. With the mediators and middlemen gone, I can tweet to anyone I like anywhere in the world, but many of us still perceive that person’s Twitter account to be an approximation of the person, rather than the real deal. It’s easier to say what you really think to an avatar.
But perhaps the very structure and dynamics of Twitter help stoke outrage. For publicly expressed outrage, you need an audience, but also an enabler -- and Twitter is both of those things. It is the ultimate rant receptacle, as the platform’s conventions can egg users on, with validation found in the number of retweets, the follower bumps, the positive @ replies, the constant opportunities for social ranking, such as appearing in a hashtag’s top tweets. Then there is that ultimate accolade, the equivalent of lighting the revolutionary touch paper: starting a hashtag.
We don’t even need tabloids or partisan cable channels to whip us up into a frenzy anymore. We can do that ourselves. Trapped in our own filter bubbles, we do a good enough job of whipping ourselves up into a self-righteous and venomous lather. Twitterstorms now have a familiar playbook: outrage, castigation, a collective loss of proportion, the herd’s humiliation of the victim, calls for apologies. Then, if the campaign is successful, there is the final act of these mini-operas: apology and maybe perhaps redemption.
While there’s no doubt much of this collective action is a good thing -- it’s hard to argue with calling out criminal corporations or highlighting the crimes of evil regimes -- the angry mobs of Twitter also show the shabbier side of human nature. It's hardly the Demos the early social-media evangelists imagined. (For another example, watch "Twitter mob justice keeps racist tram woman in jail for Christmas