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Fintan O’Toole: Ignorance is bliss when it comes to comments on social media

Learning to block out anonymous bitterness is a mental health imperative

Don’t get sucked into the vortex. Photograph: iStock

Robert Watt, the incoming secretary general of the Department of Health, is overpaid. But he earned a little of his €292,000 salary last week with some very good advice about social media to senior health managers.

“Use it,” he told them, “to get out information but that’s it – don’t engage, don’t follow the comments because it really is very damaging for people’s mental health if they get into that vortex of reading and commenting on what people are saying.”

That’s pretty much my own policy. I try to practise a wilful obliviousness. When it comes to online comments, ignorance is bliss.

Once you have a public persona, a lot of people are going to hate you

Watt is right: this really is a mental health issue and one that more people in leadership positions need to address. There is a survival skill that everybody should be taught before being sent out into the social media jungle: look away now.

There has been, rightly, a lot of discussion on the right to disengage from online work. But we also need to learn how to disengage from social media comments: the knack of safeguarding by disregarding.

I started writing professional journalism more than 40 years ago, long before the online universe was dreamed of. But simply because my job is by definition a public one, I got, in those antediluvian times, a foretaste of what would later become the normal human experience of personal exposure.

Even without the pressures of social media, there was a thing I had to learn to deal with. It is the fact that, once you have a public persona, a lot of people are going to hate you.

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"There was, and is, a huge amount of intelligent, thoughtful and eloquent comment on online platforms. But it’s choked by a tangled undergrowth of anonymous bitterness." File photograph: iStock

In my case, much of this hatred was, and is, perfectly reasonable. If you write in a disobliging way about someone else – and I have been known to do so from time to time – they will, for the sake of their own sanity and self-esteem, assume you are at best an idiot and at worst a pervert. I know this because, when the roles are reversed, I do it myself.

But it’s still a shock to the system. As social beings, we are hard-wired to crave approval and acceptance. We all want to be, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, “well-liked”. It’s even worse than that, though. It’s not enough for us to be well-liked by a lot of people – we have to be well-liked by everybody. 

Big bluff

Anyone who has ever written a book or performed on a stage or sung at a wedding or played for a local team knows the feeling. Fifty people tell you how great you were. You forget them all. You wake up in the night and brood over one cutting remark, one dismissive slight.

When the online world did emerge, there was a moment of naive optimism. Engagement was the great new possibility

You do this because it’s not really about the external criticism. That nasty comment merely echoes and amplifies the inner voice of self-doubt. Everybody who does anything in public knows how much of a bluff the appearance of achievement really is. Everybody is waiting to be found out and therefore hyper-alert to the signs that it is happening.

Since none of this ever goes away, you have to learn to put on mental blinkers. Racehorses wear them to narrow their field of vision so they don’t get spooked by too much movement around them and can concentrate on running towards the finishing post. Humans need blinkers for exactly the same reasons.

In retrospect, I was lucky to have been obliged to develop these personalised blinkers before social media arrived. Having any kind of public role, however minor, meant that you were already attuned, as the new era dawned, to the imperative of shutting out scorn.

When the online world did emerge, there was a moment of naive optimism. Engagement was the great new possibility. Readers could comment on a column and you could respond. A civic, and civil, space was opening.

Anonymous bitterness

That hope didn’t last very long. There was, and is, a huge amount of intelligent, thoughtful and eloquent comment on online platforms. But it’s choked by a tangled undergrowth of anonymous bitterness.

For those of us who are in the business, this comes with the territory. The problem is that what was once the specific experience of those of us who do our work in public is now the common lot. 

The named individual who tries to reason with anonymous demons always loses. That way madness lies

Anyone who uses social media now has some kind of public presence, a persona that is projected into the unguarded no-man’s land of cyberspace. Yet most people don’t have what I was fortunate enough to have, which is a long apprenticeship in deliberate indifference.

Learning how to ignore stuff is vital. By stuff I don’t mean the misogynistic or racist threats, the verbal violence that should always be reported to the police. I mean the constant low clamour of everyday disparagement.

It is good leadership for the head of a government department to encourage staff, as Watt put it, to “keep away from a lot of the noise”. Engagement is good. Exposure is not, especially when it is one-sided. The named individual who tries to reason with anonymous demons always loses. That way madness lies.

Don’t pay too much attention. Don’t rise to the bait. Don’t take it personally. Don’t get sucked into the vortex. Rise above.

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Fintan O’Toole: Ignorance is bliss when it comes to comments on social media

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