Woolwich Attack: In the wake of horror like this, social media brings out our worst instincts

These tweets and retweets are not analysis or democracy in action -  this is just the 21st century equivalent of scuttling to the gallows to watch a thief be hanged

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The Independent Online

It’s barely been 30 minutes since the attack in Woolwich and already my Twitter feed is drowning in a flood of vitriol, speculation, racism and recrimination. The woman who enjoys baking has decided to vote UKIP:  “When will we realise that this is what happens when you let those people in?” I tap on her open, smiling face. Her biography sings: I just love to make people smile. The paunchy Manchester United supporter and happy father of two thinks they should all go home. The teenage girl with blonde hair in a ponytail who has a passion for puppies calls the attackers ‘More Muslim scum’.  The chirpy guy I’ve been chatting to since my first article gleefully retweets Nick Griffin.

This is no mere news story. It’s a green light to peg your festering discontent to the washing line and let it blow. There’s one in the eye for the PC brigade. What I’m looking at here is a twitter feed of drunken dinner party rants and sloppy pub philosophy. It’s a chance for the lefties too, of course. They’re treating the volatile situation with their usual withering superiority. 

But there’s something even more needling here. It’s the sense of giddy excitement in every frenetic tweet. My heart sinks as the fetid stream gurgles on. I pull my thumb across the screen of my phone and refresh…a grimly unsuitable word. It clicks and pops. More bile, more vapid observation, more frivolous speculation mixed in with the usual cupcake nonsense. How disgusting and low. How inevitable. How depressingly human. Oh sure, the attack is shocking and hideous but what a buzz! Something extraordinary has worked its way into the country’s glum living rooms.

This febrile crowd of gobbling turkeys is getting off on the adrenalin, the confusion, the electricity of unexplained horror. How many people are sitting at home right now, desperately trying to engineer an infectious 140 characters and lots of delicious retweets? Perhaps a few extra followers might be a silver lining, after the brutal murder of an unarmed man.

These are the people who scuttled to the gallows to watch a thief hanged. They are the ones clogging the motorways with their rubber necks. They are at the panicked stampede in the disaster. They don’t even bother to hide their glee as they tussle for the latest detail.

And then an explosion. ITV has a video. Have you seen it? It’s disgusting. It’s vile. It’s so shocking. Retweet, retweet, retweet. Look at this everybody! Look what I found! But this isn’t the latest video from Lady Gaga. This is footage of a man holding some kind of cleaver with his hands stained red with the blood of a man who has just been slaughtered in broad daylight. I watch it and I feel sick. I don’t share it. There’s no need and frankly, I don’t want to be a part of the feeding frenzy. Not because of the blood but because I can see, in this lunatic’s face, a deeply frightening prospect.

Why should I, a journalist, be angry at people rushing for the latest news? It’s the lack of decorum, rational thought and objectivity…and the uneasy sense that maybe my profession is somehow redundant.

Where is all this heading? I wonder. I turn my phone off and wander to the kitchen – feeling nervous and unsettled - to help my boyfriend prepare dinner.