Professor Mary Beard from the University of Cambridge put former public schoolboy Oliver Rawlings firmly in his place after he abused her on Twitter. He triggered a war of words after Tweeting that she was “a filthy old slut”. Now, I have never met Professor Beard, but I am sure of two things. Firstly, you don’t become Professor of Classics at one of the world’s most prestigious universities if you are a “filthy old slut”. And secondly, even if that were possible, you certainly don’t abuse people you have never met in a public forum.
Why do I know that? Because I have a moral compass – just like you too. You know instinctively what is right and wrong, what you can say and what you can’t. You even whince and fidget when “edgy” comedians go that bit too far, testing the boundaries of what they can say, because your moral compass goes haywire.
So why are increasing numbers of people acting so appallingly online? Why is the phenomenon of “Internet Trolling” taking place anyway? Why can’t people just be nice to each other?
Thankfully, the statistics on the sentiment express on Twitter show that most of what is said is positive and helpful. The negativity is only a minor part. Even so, that does not comfort people like Professor Beard or the feminist campaiginer Caroline Criado-Perez who have been abused and threatened.
One issue, of course, is that previously their abusers may well have said these things down the pub to their mates. The victims of such abuse would be none-the-wiser if people had called them names or said they deserved being attacked in pub conversations. But when people use Twitter as though they were chatting to their mates, their disgusting and inappropriate banter becomes public. One of the factors that causes the online abuse is the comfort factor provided by social networks like Twitter that make us feel as though we are indeed talking to our mates. People forget that when they Tweet something they are broadcasting to the world.
There is another issue which lies at the heart of Internet Trolling and that is the lack of an online moral code. In society at large we get to know the moral code of our family, our workplace and the football stadium, for instance. What you say to your mates watching your team lose is not what you might say to your Mum at Sunday lunch. What is acceptable in each of our social situations is a moral code that is socially constructed by the group of people we are with. As soon as someone jumps out of line they are pounced upon. Online, however, the activities are so new and in such a state of flux and development, we haven’t really developed an online moral code. Research conducted several years ago revealed that we find it much harder to detect the moral code online than we do in the real world.
What Professor Mary Beard’s actions showed was that as soon as someone is alerted to online morals, they fall in line. She took Oliver Rawlings to task and within minutes he had apologised. It suggests that the heat of the Twitter moment, the inability to sense online morals and a feeling of chatting to his mates all made it terribly easy for him to type abuse.
This means two things for our online use. Firstly, rather than ignoring trolling incidents we should deal with the abusers because in many instances they will come to accept their immoral behaviour. But secondly, it also suggests that when we Tweet ourselves we should pause for a moment or two before we press the send button, just to be sure our own moral compass is pointing in the right direction.
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+