Social media can be a wonderful thing, but the same characteristics that make it great also make it easy to attack and judge people online.
Most people who use social media like social media for the speed with which they can find out about the latest news or what people are doing. However, the speed with which people can find quick soundbites or headlines means that it is also easy to subject people to trial by social media.
Social media, in particular Twitter, operates on the premise of people writing short, succinct posts. These posts lose much of the nuance that normally accompanies human conversations and news articles. It is therefore very easy to jump to conclusions or take quotations out of context. The relative anonymity with which people can exist on social media means that people have much less risk and much less need to consider the consequences when choosing to immediately write an abusive or judgmental post. This anonymity also makes otherwise cautious people braver and more confident in their assumptions, to the extent that attempts to counter abuse with measured argument or fact is attacked as an attempt to shirk responsibility or twist the truth, as “fake news”. A positive aspect of relative anonymity is that people often use social media as a place to vent negative emotions, but in the context of trials by social media, this also means that social media is where people express negativity, and react more negatively than they might otherwise be disposed to do in person. Posts are so easily shared on Twitter that one person being unpleasant on social media can easily become a mass social media pile-on. People find their communities on social media, but this means that many operate within a “bubble”, where everyone tends to share the belief, which reinforces the idea that a troll with face little real opposition.
On platforms where everyone is supposed to have an opinion on every topic, we end up with trials by social media, whether used metaphorically to refer to one person being abused by thousands relentlessly for a quotation or course of action, or literally to refer to assumptions being made about legal trials. Legally, there are significant concerns about whether a fair trial is still possible in cases that receive considerable press attention, to the extent that they are widely discussed on social media, and defendants receive threats or have personal details shared publicly before the trial has even begun. Similarly, trolls use any opportunity to write hurtful posts or spread conspiracy theories that are not at all rooted in truth. For example, after the MP Dawn Butler shared a video of being stopped the police while driving her car, some immediately attacked her, suggesting that she had falsified or stage the incident, and others immediately subjected the police officers in question to personal attacks.
Trial by social media is a form of trolling. Whilst some people, like BBC presenter Naga Munchetty, have adjusted and found better ways to react to hurtful people on social media, it remains that people should not even have to find ways to cope with online abuse. Social media abuse is extremely dangerous for mental health, and the negative atmosphere that can pervade social media can become draining, even if there may not be any direct abuse. There are constant examples of people, famous or not, who have had to take a social media break, or delete their accounts altogether in consideration for their wellbeing. It is important that everyone becomes more conscious of how they use social media and exercise restraint. We, at JAN Trust, run Safeguarding from Extremism workshops to educate both children and adults on the dangers of the internet. Our Web Guardians™ programme educates and empowers mothers on online extremism so that they can better protect their loved ones. There are many benefits of online communities, but we must also be aware of the risks.