As the playwright and editor Katherine Viner warned last week: “Our digital town squares have become mobbed with bullies, misogynists, and racists, who have brought a new kind of hysteria to public debate.”
Last weekend’s announcement by Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams provoked perfect examples. Online, he was either seen as the saviour of Irish nationalism or as an Irish Ratko Mladic — The Butcher of Bosnia — who is expected to be sentenced in the Hague today after a trial lasting 22 years. Of course Adams, for all his complexity and evasions, is neither of those characters but that did not prevent him being so described. It was as if one extreme view fed off the other and left no room for the kind of measured thought that underpins progress. Extremism again silenced moderation.
Adams was the subject — or victim — of myth-making but footballer Cyrus Christie was the target of something far darker. After Denmark ended Ireland’s world cup ambitions last week he was the subject of racist tweets the FAI regarded as so vile that they referred them to the gardaí. Team-mate James McClean alluded to the attacks and said that Christie had been left in tears by tweets from an anonymous account. Christie said he has endured that kind of racism for months.
He was not the only professional sportsman vilified in recent days. Hours before Adams signalled the end of his leadership champion jockey— and Irish Examiner columnist — Ruby Walsh was targetted after he broke his leg in a fall at Punchestown. Even while he was on his way to hospital faceless online commentators offered their bitterness: “Delighted for Ruby Walsh the absolute clown.” Another wrote: “Ruby Walsh broke his leg I see, my heart bleeds.”
Walsh will resume his career but whether former Fine Gael executive council member Barry Walsh, who had to resign over his abusive online remarks about women, can revive his political career is questionable. It is an indication of the detachment around this kind of abuse that he pointed out that his decision to resign would bring an “an end to the trial by media ... (which) placed intolerable pressure on my family and friends”. What about the intolerable, gender-based pressure he placed on those he excoriated?
These are just the tiniest tip of an ever-growing iceberg. Cyber-bullying has done far worse than attack reputations. It has driven the kind of despair and isolation that led to many teenager suicides. Like it or not, there is an uncontrollable, insatiable monster set loose in our world. Despite all of its great, enriching benefits it seems we need to develop a new culture of self-preservation and distance to protect ourselves from an unavoidable social, political and emotional online force, the limits of which we have yet to understand.