Is social media making bullying acceptable?

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It could be argued we might all benefit from a little digital detox, and TV presenter Sue Perkins has announced she's going to be spending some time away from Twitter. Unfortunately this isn't a lifestyle choice. She's actually been forced off the social network by, of all things, Top Gear fans.

Late last week, rumours began to drift across the internet that Perkins was being lined-up to replace the dismissed Jeremy Clarkson, on the programme. This may or may not have been true (Perkins says it's nonsense), but the rabid reaction that followed, raises a troubling question: has social media, and the internet as a whole, made bullying more acceptable?

"It's almost as though they enjoy the drama."

This whole scenario has unpleasant echoes of an incident last year, when her suggestion that a female should be depicted on a bank note, resulted in Caroline Criado-Perez being threatened with violence, rape and worse. At the time, there was an awful lot of hand-wringing and worthy words. However, once the furore had fallen away and a couple of inadequates had faced trial for their behaviour, it was Twitter business as usual. Almost as though the operators of the social network are content for their tools to be used for aggressive harassment. Almost as though they enjoy the drama, friction and attention.

Bullying is nothing new. For as long as human beings have gathered together, there have always been those inclined to quench their insecurities by ganging together to persecute an individual. Ganging together is very symptomatic too; bullies rarely act alone, even when their allies are only present in a virtual sense. Nevertheless, it feels as though the internet has opened up a whole new arena of potential persecution for these mouth-breathers. Hoping they'll stop is clearly futile, and failing to act is all the licence they need.

"One can only imagine how many 'civilians' have been chased away."

It's a little early to gauge the extent to which Sue Perkins' discomfort and distress will alarm Twitter's executives, but even if it does raise the issue of trolling again, it will only be because a celebrity is involved. One can only imagine how many 'civilians' have been chased away, leaving in humiliated, fearful silence.

Many will say Perkins should be thicker skinned, that she should accept the baying hoards as the price of her profile. After all, they're just idiots typing into a little box. I disagree. Quite apart from the fact that no human being should be forced to accept abuse as part of their job, I believe the more we dismiss or explain bullying away, the more it will be tolerated or even encouraged. That applies to the digital world as much as it applies to schools, offices or homes. Indeed, given its public influence and penetration, it may be even more important to challenge bullying online.

"The loss of dignity is theirs."

The curious nature of the modern world now insists we accept the existence of militant supporters of a rather daft TV show, without dismay. Well, so be it. If a mass of humanity is so enchanted by three middle-aged men playing chase, then the loss of dignity is theirs to savour. That said, the instant the sweaty excitement overspills to the point these 'fans' are wishing death on a woman who may be in the frame to disrupt their tragic boys' club, is the moment decent people have a duty to object. It's the moment that social media bigwigs have a responsibility to prevent those messages reaching their target. You might even say there is an onus on Mr. Clarkson to interject and try to muzzle the mob who rant in his name. Or should we all just roll over and hand the bullies the victory?

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter and blogger


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