ALISON O'CONNOR: What happened in Jobstown was bullying... like what happens online

THIS day last week just after hearing the verdict in the Jobstown trial I took out my phone and fired off a tweet.

The subject was something I felt strongly about — ever since the protest in 2014 actually — but unlike others, I held off on social media until the court case was concluded. 

So off I went. “Feel huge sympathy for Joan Burton and Karen O’Connell. Would have felt terrified in their place”, I boldly stated.

 

I have always felt that the privilege of being a journalist is that you get to write things that are read by an audience, or if you also broadcast, to say things publicly.

I’ve always taken the attitude that given that position, people are perfectly entitled to respond and given their own opinion. 

That is one of the undoubted bonuses of social media — it gives a platform to people who may otherwise never have it and to which they are perfectly entitled.

Twitter is my social media of choice. Ask my husband and he’ll tell you I spend far too much time on it. He’s correct. 

But I do enjoy it. I like the interaction with people I might not otherwise get to engage with. Of course there have been times when I’ve been the subject of stuff that’s unpleasant but that comes with the territory.

Returning to last Friday — anyone who is a Twitter regular, or who has followed a certain section of the water protest online gang — will know that no prisoners are taken, if you’ll pardon the pun, when it comes to those who have the temerity to disagree with them. I knew this when I tweeted but felt strongly enough on the point that I went ahead. What essentially followed was a deluge.

I engaged with the first few but soon realised it was as pointless as getting into a Twitter fight with Donald Trump. 

At one point during the afternoon a message popped up from Twitter saying I seemed to be experiencing an awful lot of traffic and did I want to use some filters? In truth I didn’t even know what that meant, or how to go about it.

The replies covered a wide range. I was called an asskisser, poor little snowflake, unable to handle it, an ignorer of perjury, a liar, a victim, part of the MSM conspiracy (had to look that one up, it’s mainstream media apparently), an attention seeker (trying to get myself on the radio or television), smart arsed, privileged, naïve and unable to see outside my own privileged social set. There was lots more.

In terms of what others have suffered by way of online abuse it could have been far worse. What was hardest was the sheer relentlessness and volume of it all. 

Every time you picked up your phone, which I found myself doing compulsively, despite knowing it was not good for my mental health, there was another 30 or 40 notifications.

Perhaps it was foolishness on my part but seven hours later I had a rush of blood to the head, fed up of what was coming my way, and I tweeted how I had been inundated with bile and invective from keyboard warriors and now felt double the empathy with Joan Burton for what she had gone through in real life in Jobstown.

As I type the responses have reduced massively but they are still coming in.

I don’t know much about Twitter analytics but between those two tweets there were almost 29,000 impressions, meaning that with retweets they had been seen on the timelines of many other Twitter users, and just over 8,000 people had apparently engaged with them. 

Of course there were positive responses included, with the two tweets between them being favourited by over 630 people.

I mention these numbers to give a sense of the volume involved; the sense of feeling overwhelmed, but also to give an idea of how you sit there watching it all coming in thick and fast, and feel torn between hoping it will go away, and a determination not to be cowed by it.

So much of it was worded in such a way to as to attempt to get me to engage and then, predictably, be attacked from what seemed to be a relatively small, but fairly lethal band of vitriolic keyboard warriors acting in unison.

It is quite clear there is no interest here in proper engagement or attempting to convince anyone of the merits of their position. 

None of this is not to ignore the true suffering of the people in Jobstown and other places like it during the austerity years, and their legitimate desire to protest about what they had to disproportionately endure.

But what ended up happening that day in Jobstown was good old-fashioned bullying, just as it is online. There it is an opportunity to express utter contempt for those who do not hold the same “pure position” as they do. To describe it as political expression is nonsense.

A key part of the approach by the militant wing of this protest group was an exceptionally successful campaign to utterly dehumanise Joan Burton. By doing so it made it perfectly alright in the eyes of these people to put the former tánaiste through such an experience.

The insult was doubled by refusing to acknowledge on any level that it would have been a terrifying experience for any human being. What went on, as then taoiseach Enda Kenny said in the aftermath was: “like hounds after a fox”.

I would challenge any of these people to endure similarly and not to feel terror. To endure that situation for almost three hours, surrounded by angry, volatile people, shouting and directing the most horrendous vulgar, sexist abuse at her must have been appalling. There were also things thrown at her while she made her way to the car. 

How was she not to know that things might not get out of hand and that the car could not have been overturned?

Since Friday Solidarity TD Paul Murphy, when asked if he had any sympathy for the two women, has shown an empathy bypass that is breathtaking and lacks all humanity.

I admire Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for saying in the Dáil he believed Joan Burton and Karen O’Connell were terrorised during the protest. “I think you can see the fear in their faces when you look at the coverage,” he said on Tuesday.

It contrasted sharply with the brief, lilylivered statement by the Labour Party last Friday, which made no mention of what the woman who had been their leader up to last year had endured. 

Leader Brendan Howlin did get around to addressing it in an interview with Ivan Yates on Newstalk on Sunday when he said what happened had been vile and was bullying.

There are many questions to be asked about the trial, chief among them the decision by the DPP to bring charges of false imprisonment which potentially carried a life sentence. Those on trial have been cleared of the charges, and they were a heavy weight for those six men to bear in the intervening years. 

The judge made clear which evidence the jury should give more weight to when she directed them towards the video evidence, rather than that of An Garda Síochána.

Anyway the good news is I’m off on holidays for a few weeks. Needless to say, given my privileged position, the vacation involves a private yacht, casinos and a bevy of servants. In the event I think I may well take the advice of one of the many who tweeted me in the past few days. It was: “Get off Twitter if you can’t ignore the nutters.”


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