Every time I consider creating a post on social media, be it Facebook or Twitter, I treat the process with great care and surgical precision. I look over what I have written, analysing the possibilities of how the very few people that will see the post interpret what I have shared.  This approach developed after I went back in time through my Facebook activity to find the ramblings of an adolescent, social media Neanderthal. It was disturbing.

Over Christmas I had this fear of social networking reaffirmed when I picked up So you’ve been publicly shamed by Jon Ronson. In it he talks to people who have been ridiculed, abused and had their lives ruined because of that one dodgy post on Twitter or some other social media related activity – some celebrities and others are just ordinary people. The story of Justine Sacco is probably the most sobering. After one poorly tasted joke to 170 followers Justine Sacco was being discussed and shamed by 1,220,000 and eventually lost her job as a result.

Cautionary tales such as Justine Sacco’s are common and ever growing. And what they reveal to us is that the qualities of the Internet, that makes pro-social collective movements and activism more powerful than they ever were in the pre-internet days, also embellishes the uglier world of online trolling and abuse.

Emma Watson is a high profile case in point. In the wake of Alan Rickman’s death her post quoting his support of feminism fuelled vulgar ridicule from Twitter users (most too explicit to share). In “the real world” such reactions would be intolerable, some people might have even been arrested, and as Jon Ronson explores most of the culprits are ordinary people.

Phillip Zimbardo’s deindividuation theory is a possible explanation, that the loss of one’s individual identity makes them susceptible acting on impulse. However I believe another is that the due to the vastness of freedoms that people enjoy on the internet, particularly freedom of expression, social media has created an environment where they are being abused. It is because of this that I will continue to use social media with the upmost trepidation.

The Twitter Mob