White hat exercises are those in which someone who is on your side tries to undermine you, in order to test your defences. The general idea is that as a result of these white hat forays, you will be able to fix any faults in your system so that when a black hat comes along, you will be able to fight them. This week White Hat Media, a company who claim that it’s vital that social media is integrated with online intelligence, may have to argue that one of their own employees was just on an exercise to test their skills. Or they may just have to admit that one of their employees is not, or at least was not, particularly media savvy.
It started out like so many Twitter spats with a comment that, whilst undoubtedly stupid and cruel, would have gone by and large unnoticed before the advent of social media.
It is a cruel statement and as anyone who’s been pushed around by drivers will know, which is basically anyone’s who’s cycled more than a mile on UK roads, it’s an attitude that costs lives. There are a substantial number of drivers who use punishment passes to try to drive cyclists off the road and comments like this, even if meant jokingly, help them to justify their actions. There are enough drivers out there who treat people as less than human because they happen to be on a bike and this young woman felt perfectly able to voice such sentiment in public.
At this point the hounding started. The 23rd was a working day and I missed it but as this picture shows it had reached at least 85 retweets before it became necessary for the woman in question to close her account. Now however nasty her comment bear in mind that this is someone tweeting from her personal account, a private individual, not someone seeking the public eye although she ended up firmly in its sights. There are a lot of interest groups on Twitter and they use retweeting as a call to arms. Cyclists as a group can be very intelligent and very articulate. However, like any other fairly random grouping (and the fact that they all happen to have cycled somewhere is fairly random) there are quite a few who can be cruel in their own right. Thus she was on the receiving end of some very cogent and quite fair criticism and a torrent of rather nastier stuff.
Several people referred to this woman as an “oxygen thief”. Somebody tracked down her employers and informed them of her misdeed. And yes, it is quite true that someone who works for a media company really should know something about the power of social media and really should be aware of the need to watch what you say in public. She has freedom of speech but with that freedom comes consequences. And yet I cannot say that the punishment fitted the crime. Is calling her an oxygen thief really that much better than what she said? She wanted cyclists dead – I can’t see that in effect saying that her life is worthless will make the situation any better.
Her employer’s Facebook page was inundated with one star reviews from people saying that the company was untrustworthy because of this employee. Many said she was psychopathic. I doubt very much that any psychologist or psychiatrist would make a diagnosis of psychopathy from one tweet, however bad. It takes quite prolonged study to come up with such a diagnosis and who knows what the intent behind the tweet was. Oh she may well be vapid, she may be ignorant and misguided, or just thoughtless, who knows. But psychopathic, really? Why bandy that particular diagnosis around? She felt that within modern UK culture it was quite acceptable to castigate cyclists and I take issue with that but I don’t feel qualified to comment on her mental state. And I am very glad that my teens and early twenties were lived out in the days before social media on the internet because I’m quite sure I said some very stupid things that are better lost in the mists of time.
Essentially, the pack smelled blood and they were off. And yes, I know what she said was nasty and yes I know that people with that attitude have killed others. However, as far as we know, she’s just someone who said a very foolish thing not someone who really, if she thought about it for a while, advocates murder. I’m not comfortable in situations in which what amounts to bullying is justified on the grounds that someone else started it. The fact that this woman tweeted something incredibly stupid and spiteful does not actually mean she deserves to lose her job, as many people were demanding. Humans, like it or not, are predators with a very evolved hunting instinct. Once someone slips up in some way, somehow it seems to become OK to pursue them without mercy. I’m pretty sure that in cold blood, and without the back up of a crowd, many of the people name calling and asking for her to be sacked would have had a more considered response. But once people’s blood is up and once the crowd have called for something more bloody and violent, a pack mentality takes over.
These situations have arisen before. In the case of Emma Way, she actually had hit a cyclist and upon boasting about it, she lost her job. Thus when a Twitter storm like this starts someone will say something along the lines of “There seems to be a common factor in this string of young women, car owners and drivers with this outlook and foolish enough to tell the world of their prejudice in this way”. (That’s a quote from someone on White Hat’s Facebook page). I can guarantee you that there are many young men on Twitter saying equally facile and cruel things. I also know that women are judged far more harshly, by both men and women, when it comes to assessing their achievements. She said something idiotic, but let’s not pretend that it is just young women doing this. Unless you’ve surveyed Twitter comprehensively and worked out whether the demographics on Twitter are the same as those in the general population, it seems better to me not to claim that this is a largely female problem.
This young woman thought it was OK to threaten cyclists because anyone riding a bike is labelled as being part of an out group, they are dehumanised to a degree that makes it OK (in some circles) to make jokes about killing them. Then as an individual she became an outsider, someone who could in turn be bullied and it was OK to do so, as if the original comment had given people permission to behave in a way that otherwise they would think is unacceptable. If somebody starts by doing something bad to us first, it’s as if anything we do after that is justified by their original sin. Well I’m sorry but I don’t buy that, it’s why the world is in the state it’s in. Half the world’s problems could be solved here and now if someone just worked out that retaliating in kind is a shit idea.
If I’ve learned anything from Twitter it’s that taking on the world one idiot at a time uses an awful lot of energy to very little end. True in the case of Emma Way Twitter helped to get some kind of justice but Ms Way had actually hit somebody. I can think of other cases in which someone in the public eye has said something they really shouldn’t and they have ended up by resigning. Sometimes this is fair enough. In general I think it’s good to ask yourself what you want out of a situation, if it’s achievable, and if so how you’re going to achieve it. In this case ideally I would like the young woman to realise that threats of such violence, whether or not made in jest, are hurtful and unacceptable. I’d like her to realise that people on bikes are just getting from A to B, that they are human beings and that any human, regardless of whether you agree with them or not, deserves a certain amount of respect and care. I might be able to achieve this simply by saying as much. I doubt very much that calling her an oxygen thief and demanding that she be sacked is going to help the situation or make her think carefully about road safety.
So fine, tell her what she said is stupid (which is different from saying she is stupid). Explain to her the number or deaths on the road caused by drivers devoid of empathy. Explain why cycling facilities are so often not used. Consider pointing out to her employers that they have someone completely unversed in the power of social media working for them. But if you castigate her personally and call for her sacking just ask yourself, have I never, at any point in my life, done something stupid and thoughtless that I really regret?