Internet is debasing our public discourse
Online discussion is reducing collective intelligence to lowest common denominator, writes JOHN WATERS
MY FIRST impression, on hearing about the young man arrested after he had tweeted his disaffection at the performance of British diver Tom Daley was that he was, as we used to be able to say, “touched”. By any normal judgment, his comments appeared disproportionate, erratic and gratuitously offensive.
Firstly, the tweeter had attacked Daley for his failure to win a gold medal by telling him he had let down his recently deceased father.
When Daley responded in a not unreasonably offended manner, our man came back with an apology: “I’m sorry mate I just wanted you to win cause its the Olympics I’m just annoyed we didn’t win I’m sorry tom accept my apology”.
Later, he underwent another mood swing: “I’m going to find you and i’m going to drown you in the pool you cocky t*** your a nobody people like you make me sick”. He also threatened to shoot a fan who had come to the diver’s defence, telling him he would get “a knife stuck down your f****** throat”.
The first impression, of someone not quite right in the head, was followed by a second thought: there is something familiar about the tone of these communications. In fact, the tweets were broadly in keeping with the pitch and timbre of internet discourse – perhaps a little more extreme than the norm in the specificity of their menaces, but not that far out of line, really.
There is something about the internet that provokes in many users utterly out-of-kilter responses towards events and other people, a form of episodic coprolalia that seems, for now, to be particular to the medium. It appears that a combination of anonymity and defensiveness causes users to revert to a form of pre-civilisation, in which a “kill-or-be-killed” mentality comes to the fore.
Early reports about the Olympic tweets episode referred only to the content relating to Daley’s father, leading to comparisons with the case of Paul Chambers, whose conviction for sending a menacing tweet was recently overturned by the London court of appeal. Chambers, frustrated by the temporary closure of an airport, had tweeted: “You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s*** together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!!”
There is something satisfying in the fact that society’s response to such provocations has itself been so heavy-handed. Nobody could seriously have imagined Paul Chambers intended to blow up the offending airport in Doncaster, but common sense did not intervene to prevent a massive expenditure of police and court resources. After his conviction, Chambers wrote in the Guardian that he was terrified “of speaking my mind, terrified that my life has potentially been ruined”.