Even JK Rowling needs to think before she tweets
YOU would think JK Rowling would know better. Having been involved in some pretty high-profile Twitter spats and even threatened legal action over someone jumping the gun on matters regarding her character, she was forced into a pretty embarrassing climbdown last week over, of all things, Donald Trump. The Harry Potter author had to hastily delete a tweet and apologise after she slammed Trump for apparently ignoring a disabled child, Monty, at the White House, who was waving out his hands hoping for a Trump handshake. “How stunning, and how horrible, that Trump cannot bring himself to shake the hand of a small boy who only wanted to touch the president,” Rowling lamented. But the little boy’s mother was quick to distance Monty from the claim. Marjorie Kelly Weer said on Facebook: “If someone can please get a message to JK Rowling: Trump didn’t snub my son & Monty wasn’t even trying to shake his hand.” Rowling quickly apologised to Monty and his family, but stopped short of apologising to Trump. “I very clearly projected my own sensitivities around the issue of disabled people being overlooked or ignored on the images I saw,” she said, “and, if that caused any distress to that boy or his family, I apologise unreservedly.” Rowling has become a 140-character political commentator, and her brand is very much about progressive values, tolerance and understanding, furnished with an edgy moral righteousness and condescension. But on Twitter it’s easy to switch from being wronged to being in the wrong. In fact, most high-profile commentators manage to be both interchangeably. Rowling, a woman willing to involve the courts to hold accountable anyone who she believes has falsely judged her character or misrepresented her intentions in the most damaging of ways, behaved in exactly the same way as her apparent persecutors when she made a snap judgment, based on a video, and didn’t stop to think before sharing it with her 11.4 million followers.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone will be rushing into a sympathy-fest for Trump, who once infamously appeared to mock a disabled reporter. But Rowling’s action did have an impact on a disabled boy and his family, thrusting them into a global limelight because the political point begging to be made was just too irresistible to stop for a minute and check if it was accurate.
The truth is, we’re all guilty of this. As aggrieved as I feel when people make harsh judgments about my character online, or throw wild accusations around about me, with a tweet toll reaching 75,000 I must have done the exact same thing hundreds of times, at least, to other people.
We form ideas about people or situations in our minds and then become consumed by confirmation bias. We only acknowledge things that reinforce the conclusion we’ve already reached and judging individual situations on merit somehow begins to feel like a weakness, as though questioning our own thought processes becomes a betrayal of whichever cause we’ve planted our social media flags on.
We become swept along by like-minded tweeters, making us even less likely to step into the firing line that awaits anyone with an original thought. Rowling, an intelligent and careful tweeter, is no more immune to this human flaw than anyone else, but on social media it becomes amplified beyond belief.
Twitter’s 140-character structure must make for fascinating study material for psychologists and academics.
Watching people jump from one conclusion to the next with little critical thought or common sense is like an advert for embracing artificial intelligence and accepting that we humans can’t really be trusted.
I suppose it is some comfort that JK Rowling sometimes screws things up too, and we’d all be lying if we didn’t admit feeling a little bit smug that even the most untouchable of the Twitterati is humbled now and again.
It would be easier if we all stopped to consider what we’re saying before we say it, but I have a feeling that if it wasn’t for all of our irrational howls about the latest most outrageous thing Twitter would collapse tomorrow.