The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
That’s from verse 51 of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: and ‘The Moving Finger’ was borrowed in 1942 by Agatha Christie as the title of a Miss Marple novel about a village plagued by a series of poison pen letters.
Well, 70 years on and social media has turned the whole world into a village, complete with hundreds upon hundreds of millions of ‘moving fingers’ – quite a few of which are keen to tap out and transmit poisonous abuse of anyone whose views they don’t like.
It’s made a greater deal easier by the simple fact that social media encourages both anonymity and false identity. It takes only a few minutes to create an entirely fictional online identity and then interact with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.
And it’s even easier to bully, abuse, defame and ‘stalk’ anyone you choose as a target. Even if they block you – which takes only a few seconds – you can just as quickly set up another account and begin again.
Worse, when groups of people decide to act in unison then you can find yourself bullied by huge numbers whose only mission is to force you into silence.
Sadly, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, which can be done to stop it. Not when you have that level of people involved. In Christie’s novel it was about tracking down one person in a very specific location and with a very specific style of abuse. Nowadays a person in Northern Ireland can be bullied in an orchestrated campaign by hundreds of people, the majority of whom may not even live here.
Tracking them down and closing them down is a laborious process and, in the meantime, they may just have switched identity and moved on to someone else. And even if caught by the service providers and police the system isn’t adapted (and given the numbers involved, it never will be) to dealing with the process of charging them and punishing them.
The brutal reality is that the nature and structure of social media and cyber space creates a perfect hunting ground for bullies. Yet it also provides a perfect environment for people with common interests to come together and share their likes and passions.
It can be a perfect place to create new friendships. It’s also a wonderful campaigning tool for a huge array of local and international causes. In other words, the benefits mostly outweigh the disadvantages.
That said, we should not ignore the venom poured upon the likes of Anna Lo when she made her recent comments about the bringing down of flags and murals. She was perfectly entitled to say what she said: they are her views and the views of the Alliance Party.
It would be very surprising if any politician or party political supporter or campaigner didn’t use Facebook and Twitter as a means of spreading their views.
And it would be similarly surprising if political opponents didn’t engage them in debate.
I suspect, though, that we cannot prevent those who have been abusing her. Which is why I think her response was the correct response. Let everyone else know what she’s been subjected to and make it clear that she won’t be silenced.
Bullies want to shut you up. They don’t deal in coherent argument and they don’t want to engage in the promotion or deconstruction of arguments. Most bullies are incoherent and they get their kicks from scaring people. Most of them are unhappy and unfulfilled. They rage at the world, convinced that everyone else is doing better than them. And, as is so often the case with bullies, their fiercest attacks are reserved for women, academics and ‘foreigners’.
There have always been bullies in society. There always will be. They are a fact of life. It will not be possible to stop them doing what they want to do on social media. It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that some of the bullying isn’t just about the kind experienced by Anna Lo and by quite a few women journalists and bloggers and members of the ‘gay’ community.
There’s also something I have described as ‘shouting you down’ bullying: which is when an opinion or argument becomes the target for those who disagree with you and then bombard your timeline.
Ok, it’s not the same type of bullying, but it is bullying.
I have problems too with the condescending, we-are-better-than-you-ignorant-thickos approach that lies behind some attacks on those perceived to be less well educated or from working-class communities: almost as if their fears can be dismissed as pure prejudice.
Bullying is bullying and it comes in all sorts of forms. All of them are wrong. I engage with people on an almost hourly basis about articles I have written and posted online. I want that engagement and I encourage it even when, as is often the case, people don’t agree with my views. I don’t belittle those who disagree with me and I certainly don’t go out of my way to offend them. I will challenge and push them (as they will do to me, of course). I don’t get ‘personal’ and I don’t bear grudges.
Bullies want a reaction. Indeed, they crave it. They will pick on those they regard as easy targets. But when a bully picks on Anna Lo – or on anyone else giving a personal opinion – they are picking on me, too. They are picking on everyone who uses social media for democratic and honest reasons. When they shut one of us down they damage all of us. Bullying is always wrong and the hundreds of millions of us who use social media for open and honourable purposes –under our own names – must ensure that the bullied are never left alone and unprotected.