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The dangers of Twitter Sometimes death threats do come true

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

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 TĂ©lĂ©vision 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.

mccartney_jenny

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hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

Thank you for this article. It’s an erudite summary of the growing problem of weaponised crowds. I left Twitter myself after someone posted a tweet of a video in which the Mozambican army shot a naked fleeing woman in the back, with lots of shares attached to it, and comments. I had trouble sleeping for days afterwards. And it reminded me what a savage and inhumane world we live in, where the last moments of a woman fleeing in terror can be shared around with the same emotional reaction as a skateboarding cat.
As a child I wondered how people during medieval times could turn up to public hangings. Since the onset of Twitter I’ve understood it better. A frightening number of Twitter users are the same people. A few hundred years ago many of them would have found themselves chanting “burn in hell, child of Satan!” at some condemned girl on the pyre.
One of the key problems with Fascist thinking, in my observation, is that the Fascist is always convinced of their righteousness. I recall an interviewer asking Henrik Verwoed (the architect of Apartheid) whether he ever doubted himself about his Apartheid vision. Verwoed responded that he had never had a doubt about anything in his life.
That Fasistic belief that you and your chosen few alone know “the truth” is evident in too many on both sides of the political isle right now (though I would say it is more common on the left these days). When someone is utterly convinced of their moral righteousness, and in their cognitive logic, anything and everything is justified.
Add to that the combustible component of language shifts that distort and invert words and soon violence becomes equal to words, and then violence becomes a reasonable response to words.

I no longer use social media, I’d rather not be reminded of the kind of people who live alongside me on this planet.

Thank you for a humane and balanced article.

Last edited 2 years ago by hayden eastwood
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

““burn in hell, child of Satan!””

Bit OTT lurid example there –

Terry McMahon
Terry McMahon
2 years ago

Never commented on an Unheard piece before but the folks who aren’t bothered to read the article yet still feel compelled to publicly dismiss it may be the perfect manifestations of the author’s point.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry McMahon

Maybe so, but I have sympathy with those who switch off at the mention of Twitter. It’s my guess that Twitter is used mainly by clebs and media folk – Normal sane people don’t use it and so turn away from articles about it.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

You’re both right.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I’m on Twitter. Are you saying I’m insane? No, I’m sane, but curious. There are 199 million active users on Twitter – they surely aren’t all insane, ‘celebs or media folk’.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

I’m sure that there indeed 199 million insane, celebs and media folk in this world. I acknowledge that you are a rare exception.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Sorry Terry, you need to get out a bit more if you think that all of Twitter is made up of these people. Not everything on Twitter is angry shouting. There are very sane sports fans, scientists, cooks, pastors, accountants, the girl next door and so on.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

All communicating with a maximum of 280 characters a go. When I was a kid I was required to write Christmas thankyou letters to my aunties that were longer than that.
PS: And so were you!

Sam McLean
Sam McLean
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

You haven’t come close to 280 characters in any of your three posts here………

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Sam McLean

I am renowned for terseness

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago


and uncountable numbers of public sector workers in ‘customer-facing’ pseudo-jobs, who have been told that Twitter is a critical communications tool for interfacing, engagement and advocacy. Alas.

Allie McBeth
Allie McBeth
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

We really shouldn’t switch off from it. It’s real and it’s huge.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Allie McBeth

Don’t try and sweet talk me Allie.

Helen Murray
Helen Murray
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Ha Ha, I like your dry humour Terry!

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry McMahon

My issue is that unHerd, just like pretty much any other news outlet, ENABLES this behaviour by publicising it (and Twitter gets its extra clicks in the process).

ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

Agree with all the points well made in the article.
How is it that a racist tweet or Trump tweet is deleted and the twitter band/suspended yet other acts of violent threats and intimidation and bullying (including Islamic fanatics) are given a free rein to go viral?Twitter controllers must want this to happen.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

You write off Twitter spats “flowing” into Old Media as it it’s a natural, unstoppable, process.

It is not. It’s a deliberate action by Old Media journalists.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I have a Twitter account, but I don’t visit it much as a it is a rabbit hole that can suck up ones time and I don’t find its format satisfying.
Besides the extremely bad behaviour that it allows, Twitter is also an ineffective means of communication. It is difficult to mount a persuasive argument because of the format and more importantly there is no ‘dislike’ button, so you either have to respond with a tweet, or scroll on by. I think the latter is the main flaw in the format.
Whether you are on Twitter or not, Twitter has a significant impact on Western society and demands to be discussed. If any one social media platform should be discontinued, Twitter is it.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago

Everyone on it knows the jig by now surely. Why continue to use it? Anyone who falls foul of a Twitter mob for posting something contentious… well, own it. Suck it up.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I have discovered things on Twitter that I never knew existed. I’m not very active, but not ready to close my account!

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

It’s simple enough to largely end anonymity on social media – and allow libel/defamation cases to flourish – but governments are too cowed to insist on it.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Removing anonymity would mean one could not post anything against what the radical end of thinking endorsed. I know nothing more horrific than people saying all need to prove their identity to converse on social media. It is like publishing the voter rolls and how you voted. I mean why not, by your standard. ‘If that is how you vote, well own it’.

What you propose is tyranny of the Blackshirts. Thought crime, STFU as snitches get stitches vigilantism.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago

I have no sympathy at all for anyone who posts deliberately provocative ‘Tweets’, all for attention, and then plays the victim from the inevitable backlash. Giles Coren and Darren Grimes knew what they were doing, so reap what you sow lads.
Just don’t do Twitter, end of. It’s a cesspit. No one needs it, it’s all for vanity and the sooner it fades into obscurity, the better it will be for society.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

Twitter would benefit from banning name-calling and empty one-line insults – just remove them – they add zero content – and some of the perpetual smell of the sewer would disappear.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

A powerful article I thought, it certainly got across to me the danger we are in.
I don’t know what the answer is to the problem of twitter, it seems to be one of the dark places best avoided like alleyways and towpaths at night, certain nightclubs and tunnels.
” Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side of life.”
but I hope our government realise the potential for the anger to escalate and get out of hand, and have a realistic, adequate strategy in place to deal with it if necessary.

Marcus Scott
Marcus Scott
2 years ago

If I walk into the roughest pub in Britain I can expect there to be trouble. I am not to blame if I am randomly assaulted but my judgement in going into that pub in the first place is questionable. That is why I don’t go into Britain’s roughest pub.
If Twitter will not enforce rules of reasonable behaviour on its users and that bothers you then don’t use it.
Always remember, when it comes to social media you are not the customer you are the product. The advertisers are the customers. Go ahead and sign up for Twitter if it is that important to you but make your complaints to Twitter if there are problems, leave the rest of us out of it.

Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
2 years ago

Interesting and well-written article, thanks. Some disturbing stories, generally confirming a widespread impression that lefties get away with deplorable verbal aggression themselves, but twist, fabricate, and put a lot of effort into damaging the careers and home life of righties. I could defend that as using the tools available, and acting lawfully. One problem is well illustrated by the article’s reference to the IRA, where NI catholics were encouraged to feel under attack, and quite a few then resorted to horrible violence. Left and right should find some common ground in wanting to prevent similar violence from “feeling under attack” poor whites in the UK, and something to curb social media one-sidedness and aggression would be a good start.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

Is Giles Coren a leftie?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

I stopped reading about halfway down. I don’t want to think about Twitter. And I don’t think UnHerd is the place to find people who do. But I did learn the phrase “outrage inflation”, which I shall be reusing, so the time I invested in this article wasn’t completely wasted.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Give it another go Katherine. Yes there are too many Twitter references all over the shop – but this is one of the good analyses!

Brendan Newport
Brendan Newport
2 years ago

These new social mores must drive Charlie Brooker to distraction. How do you come up with Black Mirror scripts that can match what is going on in reality? I remember the final two seasons of House of Cards simply couldn’t match what was going on in the 2016 Presidential race and its aftermath in 2017.
In this new world, an LSE Gender Studies student apparently employs the language of incels. Who could have seen that one coming five years, even two years ago? Who would have imagined for one moment that Jezebel magazine, which markets itself as a feminist publication, would deride anyone, particularly a woman, for highlighting a threat against her?
Social media has created a topsy-turvy world where the so-called beacons of liberalism appear now to be demanding that speech be policed and those (again, particularly women) who dare to stray from the approved narratives be issued with instant death-and-rape-threats.
I’m sure there is something ‘good’ about Twitter, but occasionally looking at the so-called discussions in read-only mode (i.e no account) I struggle to identify what it is, beyond a cess-pit of threats and victimhood.

Cat Fan
Cat Fan
2 years ago

Good article, and the examples are shocking.
I did think the article was going to touch on swatting. Not sure if I am allowed to post a link here, but if you google the name Mark Herring and Tennessee you will find a disturbing story from earlier in the week where a man who was using the Twitter ‘handle’ Tennessee suffered a heart attack and died after police were called to his home (swatting) as part of a campaign of harassment which had begun online and became more serious. The harassment had included having his home address and those of his relatives posted on a chat board and then others were encouraged to engage in intimidation. This was all because the man’s Tennessee was considered to be worth a few thousands of dollars and he would not sell it.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

I suppose it would be difficult to organise a polite, reasoned pile-on to someone like Matt Thompson, pointing out the error of his ways. It would be like having a write-in to a tribe of cannibals.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

Another article about a twitter story??
Who the BL©©dy cares.
Maybe the article is very good, but I stopped reading about 1/3 of the way down. It is late and really I can’t care less about what happens on Tw@tter.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X
Brian Delamere
Brian Delamere
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Well. You could try the Daily Mail and get a regurgitated story from Mumsnet.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Brian Delamere

Are you by any chance related to the M4 service station Leigh? I wrote a sonnet about it a few years ago, which got published in The Hypertexts just before the New Year:-
Sonnet 75, by Richard Craven
Leigh Delamere, you should have written verse:
a minor, whimsical, Pre-Raphaelite,
or modernist perhaps, but not too terse,
although stooping betimes into the trite.
Now come we in our cars to chew your stodge,
buy petrol – ludicrously over-priced –
take part in orgies in your Travelodge,
and moan about your toilets not being nice.
Leigh Delamere, I’ve been your Porlock too.
I’ve visited your stately pleasure dome
skidmarked your nylon sheets and blocked your loos,
stolen your towels and bvggered off back home.
For these foul desecrations, let this be,
Leigh Delamere, my true apology.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Nylon sheets? Where? Not in the Travelodge.
As for orgies and skidmarks, less said the better.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Poetic licence is the hill which I die on, Mr O’Leary.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago
Reply to  Brian Delamere

Are they the only two options then? The Daily Mail or bloody Twitter spats dissected on Unherd.

Sam McLean
Sam McLean
2 years ago

No

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

me neither and never have – are we weird or something ? Or do we have well developed bullsh*t detectors ??

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

UnHerd commenters don’t tend to go in for “ bullying, smearing or even directly threatening someone online” but the point is well made: whether it’s porn or violence, the amount of it washing over us is coarsening and narrowing, rather than expanding and elevating. I know, one isn’t allowed to say that anymore.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

The issue is that all this is being enabled by the media (including unHerd and the Spectator).
Let’s not give this nonsense extra space and they will sort themselves out.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

In another article in today’s Unherd Freddy gives a back-handed Mia Culpa about a twitter he re-posted (and casually mentions he got 600,000 retweets, or some startling number!)

Funny how life is always full of Jungian Synchronicity, which seems to happen to me a great deal, and one never knows what to make of it, but suspect it should be noted as it seems a bit Karmic, or something.