Marcus Rashford after he missed his penalty (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

July 29, 2021   7 mins

The news used to be something that people absorbed, and responded to, largely in private. It arrived as a pre-produced, packaged entity. People opened their morning paper and expostulated over the breakfast table. Or they settled down for the 6 o’clock bulletin, with its urgent bleep of news-music, and yelled back at the television from the sofa.

There used to be, too, a difference between the things people said — remarks intended to vanish on the air — and the things they wrote and published, which were generally more considered: physically laborious to produce, and passed through selected gatekeepers in order to reach a mass audience.

And then came Twitter, the most powerful modern illustration of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message. Here, the flow of news is continuous, unregulated and fierily interactive. The instant, throwaway nature of conversation has been imported into a published, preservable medium. Spats that arise on Twitter now regularly flow back into the “old media” of print; and then — with the ease of retweets and replies — it has technically enabled the rapid amplification of praise or abuse, the latter resulting in the “pile-on”.

As with the emotional contagion that sweeps through a physical mob, the particular structure of Twitter encourages users to behave in ways which would have been contrary to their “public self” five or ten years earlier — although it may, sometimes worryingly, have unleashed the private self to speak more freely. Those who join in often sport the blue ticks denoting a verified account, and it’s clear that they don’t think of themselves as bullies, but as the righteous enforcers of a fluid but tangible moral order.

One recent episode involved Darren Grimes, a young, gay, pro-Brexit conservative commentator who has over 150,000 Twitter followers. In the aftermath of the Euro 2020 final, when emotions were running high, Grimes posted a tweet in which he tagged in the young England footballer Marcus Rashford — who had missed a penalty — and said “penalties not politics from now on, aye?”

It was a snide tweet, partly designed to set the Twitter hive-mind buzzing in irritation. It was unfair, too: plenty of hard-training players miss penalties — and since the press and public spent years berating footballers for their boozed-up, skirt-chasing antics, it seemed weird to deride one young player for dignified campaigning on free school meals. Many people disagreed with Grimes’ tweet, and said so. But the blue-ticked rugby pundit Brian Moore went one better, tweeting of Grimes that “this little done-nothing twat deserves a good kicking.”

The kicking was duly delivered elsewhere, in electronic form. A different tweeter, from the now-defunct account @hepcatsector, came up with the dubious story that his cousin had gone to school with Grimes, and that in year 9 he had a nickname associated with masturbation under a desk. This tweeter also posted a series of messages between himself and Grimes, which later turned out to be fake. The allegation was designed to be both sexual and shaming. Twitter adored it, naturally, and sent it viral — endlessly hashtagging the alleged nickname, expanding on it, illustrating it with obscene memes and videos.

Grimes replied that he didn’t have that nickname at school, but that he was certainly called “poofter,” “fag” and beaten for being “gay”.

The Twitter rumour wasn’t directly homophobic, although certainly nasty. But anyone who recalls homophobic taunting from their schooldays will remember how frequently it caricatured gay adolescents as inappropriately sexual, prone to getting “turned on” in situations and ways that allegedly repelled their tormentors. In effect, the baseless rumour that Twitter spread about Grimes as a schoolchild is precisely the kind of rumour that school bullies spread about gay teenagers. Those revelling in it would mostly count themselves on the “progressive” side of politics, and would no doubt officially deplore homophobia. Yet somehow that line of attack arose – and they all joined in.

The spat had barely cooled when Giles Coren, a columnist on The Times, posted a tweet about Dawn Foster, a Left-wing fellow journalist who recently died suddenly aged just 34. Foster, who could be a combative Twitter presence herself, had made acerbic comments about Coren some years earlier. These had rankled, and upon her untimely death — to sum up his tweet, which was later deleted — he wondered aloud about a response which began in faux-commiseration and ended in gleeful laughter.

His tweet itself suggested someone playing a high-stakes game of risk, not only with the boundaries of taste in the aftermath of a death, but with a huge and volatile audience: a kind of Russian roulette with a “post a tweet” button, testing if this might be the one that triggers disaster. And Twitter did indeed respond, sometimes with pained disbelief, and sometimes with foul insults and escalating threats of real-life reprisals over many days.

British speech was once heavily associated with understatement, which itself was tied to civic virtue. The most inconceivable pressures and agonising wartime losses, for example, were often described in stoically minimal terms such as “a spot of bother” or “a bit sticky”. Quite the opposite mode of speech, however, has spread throughout social media: the language of wild overstatement. It frequently employs adjectives once applicable to the extreme depths of human behaviour – “vile” “disgusting” “horrific” – to perceived minor transgressions of some fast-moving social code. This fury is often triggered by nuance, while leaving major, real-world offences untouched.

The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw, for example, recently described Scarlett Johansson’s “sensuous cough-syrup purr” in a review. The actress is known in Hollywood for her seductive voice: in my days as a film critic I wrote about it myself. Yet this mild expression of admiration drew the ire of an LA features editor called Alisha Grauso, who tweeted her anger at a “middle-aged male film critic” being “so GD f*ing creepy when writing about female characters.” Thanks to outrage inflation, a key element in the Twitter economy, a large band of Grauso’s 27,000 followers were soon rocking away in performative horror like the young maidens of Salem: cue vomiting GIFs, fierce accusations of “fucking gross”, and the now-formulaic imitation of stunned disbelief: “…I just…what…”

What is this? Anger looking for a place to earth, I suppose. Restless anger coming out, sometimes skimpily dressed as satire, and attracting more and greater waves of anger to it, as a kind of confirmation of its existence. Boundaries of what it’s acceptable to say are being dissolved. And, increasingly in modern Britain, physical boundaries are being crossed too. Twitter’s mechanics are reshaping national codes of behaviour.

Last June a crowd demonstrated outside Dominic Cummings’ family home, erecting a giant screen. A different crowd recently sought out the place where it thought the chief medical officer Chris Whitty lives. Whitty himself was mauled, jostled and filmed in a park by two young men, who had just been to an anti-lockdown rally and had its speeches ringing in their ears. The wall outside Coren’s house was daubed with Foster’s name, and dog excrement left on the pathway.

In every case, the people crossing the boundaries believed that outrage and circumstance had given them the moral authority to behave outside normal codes, and to take the argument directly to their opponent’s door, sometimes to family homes in which partners and young children also live. What people do when they think they’re allowed, of course, is what part of them wanted to do when they weren’t. Regardless of what one thinks of each individual trigger, this is cause for concern.

I grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a conflict in which physical boundaries were frequently crossed in the most horrific ways. People were shot as they answered the door or blown apart when starting up their car. It didn’t begin with that, of course. It began with the gradual heating-up of rhetoric, the stentorian sectarian speeches of the young Ian Paisley, the impassioned orations at IRA commemorations, all fanning the existing fears and resentments of their listeners into uncontrollable action.

For conflicts more explicitly activated by the media itself, one need only look to the central role that the Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines played in the Rwandan genocide. Its hate-filled patter inciting murderous violence against Tutsi “cockroaches” was woven in with jokes and songs, pop music and phone-ins. Conscious of the part the station was playing in directing genocide, human rights groups including the US Committee for Refugees asked that US military resources be used to jam their broadcasts. The US government refused: for reasons outside Rwanda, it had a strong commitment to broadcast freedom, and was culpably slow to see the urgency of the argument in this case.

We’re a long way from these horrors in the West, but a strange inversion has already taken hold in the thinking of many — especially those who are most vocal on university campuses. It’s said that ideological difference, even when thoughtfully and politely expressed, is “literal violence” and deserves a commensurate response. But actual, direct threats of stabbing, raping, killing or bombing are meant to be interpreted as metaphorical.

The area where this pattern of thought is most apparent is in the current highly charged argument over trans issues. It was evident in a recent article in Jezebel magazine, in which the writer, Ashley Reese, berated JK Rowling for making public a tweet wishing her “a very nice pipe-bomb in the mailbox”. Discussing the tweet, Reese mocked the idea that anyone would feel directly threatened by a Twitter user who in this case describes themselves as “a genderfluid lesbian and a cybermarxist” and uses an anime avatar.

Yet the article demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of who issues violent threats, and of what such threats — even if not enacted — are intended to do. Is there really a “type” from whom we should take threats seriously, and another we should comfortably ignore? History suggests that would be foolish. The Price sisters, Marian and Dolours, for example, were intelligent, highly attractive young women who had attended teacher training college. In 1973, aged 19 and 22 respectively — fired by a belief in the purity of their cause — they participated in the IRA Old Bailey bombing which left 200 people injured and one dead. The journalist Neal Ascherson remembered Ulrike Meinhof as a “tender and vulnerable” 30-year-old journalist, the mother of young twins. That was before she “took up the gun” as a leader of a gang responsible for a wave of bombings, shootings and assassinations across Germany.

Soon after the tweet that Rowling highlighted — one among many threats she has received — another piece of writing came to light, this time from a paper written by an LSE Gender Studies student, Matt Thompson. In it, the author makes an explicit threat to “TERFs” or gender-critical women. “Picture this: I hold a knife to your throat and spit my transness in your ear. Does that turn you on? Are you scared? I sure fucking hope so.” It’s the type of statement frequently found on Twitter, now immortalised in an academic paper. Thompson self-defines as “an autistic genderfuck” and also someone “who loves cats, running, books and plants.” By Reese’s logic, who could possibly be afraid of a student who loves cats?

And yet it seemed Thompson very much wanted certain women to feel afraid. There’s a negative, insidious power to open threats of harm, which is exactly why people and paramilitary groups make them. They deliberately invoke fear to shut people up. They take root in the victim’s psyche, stealing their peace of mind, making them feel that violence might be just around the corner. And sometimes death threats do come true.

We cannot put the genie of social media back in its bottle. But we can certainly stop persistently lying to ourselves — as individuals and as a society — about what it is permissible to say to those we dislike or disagree with, and how we say it. The truth is that, most of the time, the state’s not going to stop you from bullying, smearing or even directly threatening someone online: there’s simply too much material for it to handle. But brick by brick, word by word, we’re either building or tolerating a world that we will all then have to live in. And most people in the UK are simply not prepared for what that could entail.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.