Story of 'keyboard warrior' reveals why ego often trumps compassion online

Is social media having a worrying impact on our capacity for human empathy? asks Áilín Quinlan.

Story of 'keyboard warrior' reveals why ego often trumps compassion online

A 63-year-old woman described by her neighbours as ‘God-fearing’ was found dead in an English hotel room earlier this week.

Days before, the “good, friendly” church-going woman, Brenda Leyland, had been exposed as the ‘keyboard warrior’ who had tormented Gerry and Kate McCann, the parents of missing child, Madeleine.

Leyland sent them crude tweets, such as “Q, how long must the McCanns suffer, answer: for the rest of their lives”.

The viciousness of Leyland’s messages prompted members of the public, sympathetic to the McCanns, to compile a dossier of her tweets and to hand it to Scotland Yard.

Neighbours were shocked that Leyland had such a ‘double personality’.

Nowadays, people record and upload attacks on tourists, take selfies with homeless people and ‘share’ graphic snaps of drunken girls giving oral sex — for fun.

We all did foolish, risky things when we were growing up, but nobody recorded it; we were never exposed to anonymous abuse.

Today, however, we’re only too eager to ‘share’ the hurt and humiliation of others, no matter how young or how vulnerable; many of us don’t think twice about exposing the plight, or ill-judged behaviour, of others to public derision and commentary.

Our compassion has short-circuited, says Fergal Rooney, psychologist and coordinator of the psychological services for healthy relationships and sexuality at St John of God’s Hospital, in Dublin.

“Social media can make us override our capacity for empathy,” he says.

The ‘rush’ of uploading something onto social media can prevent an otherwise decent person from acknowledging the humanity of the subject they are secretly photographing or videoing, he says.

“There’s an appeal in the idea that you post something that goes viral- and, if someone can post something that gets a high number of views, at some level that gives them status in the internet world.”

“There is an appetite for salacious and extreme content — there is an appetite among viewers to see this stuff and that validates the means someone goes to just to get it.”

Social media facilitates whatRooney calls “a distancing” from the verbal and non verbal hints that ensure people stay respectful.

“If we were having a face-to-face interaction, there’d be a lot more cues between us,” he says.

That’s an interpretation with which David McCarthy, a cyclist with the Nicholas Roche performance team, might agree.

The Cork teenager experienced the dark-side of social media after he recently took a ‘selfie’ of himself smiling next to Marcel Kittel, the exhausted winner of the Dublin stage of the Giro d’Italia.

“The uproar was fairly bad — it broke on the Monday night, with people calling me a dick****, w***** and loser.

“On the Tuesday night, I got some guy from Vancouver who said he’d like to beat me up,” he says, adding that most of the abuse came via tweets, as his Facebook page was private.

Yet, says McCarthy, who later apologised, the public’s interpretation of the incident was inaccurate.

“The social media picture gave a very misleading view of what happened,” says McCarthy.

“Some people thought the guy had crashed and that I was taking advantage of the situation, but, in fact, he won the race, got off his bike, sat up on the kerb and was waiting for staff to come down to him.

“When he got up 20 seconds later, he was high-fiving people. When I was taking the picture, I just felt I had a good pic of my idol, who had just won a grand tour and that was the way I saw it.”

Social media allows us to ‘disassociate’ from the people or the scene in front of us, says psychologist, Patricia Murray.

“Social media facilitates a lot of malice in people and objectifies people.

“It objectifies human beings and makes them a subject of fun and an object to be looked at and discussed,” she says, and it all happens under what she calls a veil of ‘pseudo-fun’.

“There’s an element of debasement. There’s a huge lack of empathy there, and it’s about objectifying people — from their appearance to their behaviour.”

Parents have a crucial role to play here, says child and adolescent psychologist, Kate Byrne.

“You can have kids who are very internet-savvy and use social media, but they’ve been brought up to have compassion.”

As a parent, she says, be cognisant that the way you treat other people is paramount in developing your child’s perception of how he or she should treat people.

However, she says, it is important to remember we are all vulnerable to peer pressure.

“Remember, someone might do something to be one of the crowd, even though they might be uncomfortable about doing it,” Byrne says.

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