The lethal truth of online abuse
Disagree by all means, but nasty personal attacks are out of line
hen was the last time that you disagreed with someone and told them that they should go and kill themselves? When did you last have a discussion about an issue in which you told someone who opposed your opinion that they deserved to be physically harmed in some way?
For some social media users, the answer is probably “yesterday”, or “this morning”.
This week, social media ended up in the news again, when Duncan Garner decided to leave Twitter, calling the social network “foul and putrid”. Garner wrote a column about immigration in which he described a trip to Kmart where he saw a queue of “Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Syrians, and many others,” as a “nightmarish glimpse into our future if we stuff it up”. As it turned out, a number of Twitter users didn’t much like Garner’s column — neither did the Human Rights Commission — and he spent last Saturday defending himself.
I had some serious reservations about Garner’s column too, although I didn’t engage with him on Twitter. Indeed, anyone who disagreed with Garner was well within their rights to voice their opinion. There is a difference, however, between voicing an opinion and being abusive.
From what I saw on Twitter, Garner received a large number of thoughtful comments that disagreed with him in a civil, yet passionate way. He maintains that he also had a number of abusive comments thrown at him. It’s important not to confuse the two. Disagreement in and of itself is not abuse, but if my experiences are anything to go by, I can believe that he received a few vile comments.
Two weeks ago I received some advice suggesting that I should kill myself. A Facebook user took umbrage with my column about Fonterra CEO Theo Spierings’ salary and decided to offer me some of his profound wisdom in response. “Seems like you have a tallpoppyitis affliction,” Lawrence Prasad wrote. “Bungy jumping without the cord is known to help.”
Netsafe — the agency tasked by the Government with handling online abuse — said the comment could represent a “possible breach of Principle 9 of the Harmful Digital Communications Act: a digital communication should not incite or encourage an individual to commit suicide.” Upon further examination, however, Netsafe wrote back to tell me that “the first requirement of the HDCA has not been met, ( 1. There has been a threatened serious breach, a serious breach or a repeated breach of one or more of the 10 communications principles).”
No further action would be taken unless I took the case to court.
To be fair and transparent, Mr Prasad did apologise — after prompting. He made sure to tell me (“please note”) that his comment was meant in jest. I’m not sure what this says about my sense of humour, but I don’t really find suicide all that funny.
Perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe I just have a warped sense of humour. I didn’t find these comments funny either:
“. . . She deserves to be hunted like a dog . . . ” — a Facebook user going by the name Rex Anderson.
“You’re the reason why I hit women . . . ” — An Instagram user going by the name Premsocial.
“I’d go if she was swinging ( from a rope) lol . . . ” — A Facebook user going by the name Peter Large.
I did, however, find this one quite amusing:
“Lizzie’s a precious snowflake in touch with aliens.” — A Facebook user going by the name Petra Sommers.
You’ve got me, Petra. I’d better phone home to check whether my alien overlords feel I’ve been compromised.
It’s been a while since I last wrote about online abuse. I’ve resisted it, because the sad reality is that to speak of it is to invite more of it, and indeed, I’m quite sure that there will be a number of people queuing up to call me a “precious petal” who “can’t stand the heat” when this column is published. The irony is that if any of them had to deal with the sheer volume and frequency of abuse that I do, I doubt they’d last a week.
Which is not some kind of boastful badge of honour. It’s the lethal truth of online abuse. It harms and it kills. And regardless of whether the targets are public figures, their chosen profession doesn’t automatically give them superhuman powers to withstand emotional distress. They are human beings too.
This modern obsession with being as nasty as possible to one another online has to stop. I’m not saying that we should shut down debate and discussion, but we need to remember that it is possible to agree to disagree and to do so civilly.
The first rule of debating is to “play the ball, not the man” ( or woman). It’s a phrase that serves as a helpful reminder to young debaters that to attack a member of the opposite team personally, rather than to focus on rationally dismantling their argument, is to hand victory to your opponents. Ad hominem attacks lose debates.
In the real world, ad hominem attacks can result in lost lives. Charlotte Dawson’s being one.
They should instead result in consequences for those who make them.
Theoretically we have legislation and an agency in this country that act as a deterrent. That’s certainly not my experience. Netsafe “aims to lessen the harm caused to people targeted online by using persuasion, mediation and negotiation”.
The agency “cannot punish people for their actions online, or force them to take action such as removing content”.
It also does not have investigative powers, and told me that in order to mediate and negotiate with someone who has been abusive, it must be provided with an email address or phone number. Hang on a minute — I’ll just ask my abusers for their contact details, shall I?
It’s ludicrous. The system is failing. In my opinion, the Harmful Digital Communications Act is a joke.
Only, it’s about as funny as a joke about suicide.
Are you laughing yet?
This modern obsession with being as nasty as possible to one another online has to stop . . . we need to remember that it is possible to agree to disagree and to do so civilly.