Even JK Rowl­ing needs to think be­fore she tweets

Sunday Herald - - WEEK IN PERSPECTIVE - Angela Hag­gerty So­cial me­dia Angela Hag­gerty is ed­i­tor of the Com­monS­pace on­line news and views web­site, which you can find at www.com­mons­pace.scot

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.

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