I used to be part of the online Twitter ‘mob’ – until I realised what it was doing to me

Being perpetually outraged loosens our perspective on what’s important and what isn’t true. It makes us more easily dismiss facts that don’t fit the narrative

Sunny Hundal
Tuesday 29 March 2022 13:18 BST
Getting outraged over something that feels morally right is an easy way to get noticed
Getting outraged over something that feels morally right is an easy way to get noticed (Getty)

Last night, someone posted another clip from the Oscars in which comedian Amy Schumer refers to Kirsten Dunst as a “seat filler” and shoos her away. The clip went viral.

Cue the outrage: “Why are Oscars hosts making fun of people’s wives?” read the top response, presumably referring to the slew of headlines about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock after he made a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. To which someone replied: “Why are Oscars hosts just making fun of people?”

The whole thing was a set-up, of course. Poor Schumer had to confirm that – just in case offended fans started a protest outside her house.

This state of affairs almost makes me long for the early days of social media when people would freely distribute Stephen Fry’s eternal quote: “You’re offended? So what?” Now, you’d get cancelled just for saying that.

I’m an old internet person, so I remember when online activism was new. In 2011, when the story broke that Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, the News of the World, had hacked the phones of members of the public, I organised an online campaign to highlight its advertisers. It took tens of thousands of tweets over a week to get them to pull out, one by one, before the newspaper folded.

These days, it just takes a couple of people to start a hashtag, before others get outraged that there’s an offensive hashtag, and it just snowballs from there.

To take one recent example, I don’t remember seeing anyone notable saying that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe should be grateful for the British government freeing her. But I saw plenty of people outraged that there was someone out there with that view. And so, the outrage machine cranked up again and we had a full day of debate on Twitter where everyone was arguing against non-entities who thrive on riling up people.

You could argue that the media – of which I’m admittedly a paid up member – has become part of the problem. Social media is a goldmine for easy news stories about people being offended by something or the other. I once played a part in that too, so much so that I used to get criticised in the press for leading online mobs.

But Twitter has warped our brains.

Everyone wants to be noticed. And getting outraged over something that feels morally right is an easy way to get noticed. So, on social media, we end up in a vast competition to raise our pet issues by generating outrage over it. Or if others get outraged, we feel compelled to be involved. As the popular Twitter saying goes, “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention”. And no one wants to look ignorant.

You might think I have just turned into a whiny old man. Maybe I’m not the radical I used to be. But as someone who was perpetually outraged until quite recently, let me warn you: there are side effects.

Being perpetually outraged loosens our perspective on what’s important and what isn’t true. It makes us more easily dismiss facts that don’t fit the narrative. The world has to be black or white – otherwise it’s difficult to sustain the anger. There is no room for ambiguity or nuance. This is dangerous because the truth matters.

The other problem is that when you’ve got a pitchfork in hand, it’s far easier to stab someone than talk to them. There is no space for forgiveness or redemption. That person has to be condemned as eternally racist or sexist, or else we might be condemned as enabling it. It’s safer to join the mob than try and calm it down.

I get that social media has given voice to people – especially minorities. We previously had no avenues to express our outrage. I’ve been there, got people fired etc. But it only makes you feel good for a short amount of time, before you move on to your next fix. The world has a habit of trying to keep us angry. But people are a product of their environments: if we don’t give them space to recognise their biases or prejudices, they won’t learn or change. They will just double down. That’s what people do.

Jon Ronson, who wrote a book on online shaming, summed it up: “On social media we’d had the chance to do everything better, but instead of curiosity we were constantly lurching towards instant cold judgement.”

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Before I get cancelled, again, it is worth saying that outrage can have value too. The world wouldn’t change if someone wasn’t angry enough. But constant outrage ends up devaluing the genuine times when it’s merited. Worse, it’s bad for our mental health. Anger is good, in moderation – but if it takes over our lives it ruins everything. Just like, well, social media really.

I’m not making excuses here for Schumer– or even Will Smith and Chris Rock. Hollywood stars are not on the top of my list of people in need of sympathy. I’m more worried about the world we have collectively created.

Or, as Stephen Fry very eloquently put it: “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that’. As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more … than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so f*****g what.”

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