Quiz time. What do the following people have in common?

  • Mario Balotelli
  • Joseph Kony
  • Dr Matt Taylor
  • Anita Sarkeesian
  • Dapper Laughs
  • Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak
  • Emily Thornberry MP
  • Lord McAlpine

No, it's not the line-up for Strictly Come Dancing 2015. The answer, of course, is that they have all, in various ways and at various times, been the victims of Twitter witch hunts: by which I mean that a rapidly escalating series of posts on the site, criticising them and/or calling for action against them, has snowballed and snowballed until a point of no return.

Sometimes the end point is an apology, a firing or a resignation; sometimes it’s the toppling of a repressive regime. But all of the above have suffered material, real-world consequences following - I hesitate to definitively say "caused by", although in many cases that is patently true - the attentions of social media users.

I use the words "victims" and "suffered" advisedly here, by the way, because clearly some of the people above brought their troubles on themselves. But the extent to which this is true varies enormously. Indeed, I rather hope that the absurd incongruity of that mixed-up rogues gallery - Ugandan warlords alongside bargain-basement comedians, dictators beside Islington MPs - begins to make my first point for me.

On Twitter, there is no such thing as perspective.

Twitter's sense of outrage (and I'm going to be speaking about Twitter specifically in this article, although Facebook occasionally shares its younger rival's tendency towards crusading sanctimony, and some smaller social networks such as Tumblr can be even worse) very rarely operates in shades of grey. Its three default states - boredom, silliness and outrage, but mostly outrage - are always dialled up to 11, and always focused on whatever is happening right now. The service has a collective attention span that you can measure in hours.

Why is Twitter like this? It isn't because the users are all weak-minded zealots - with 500 million users, Twitter attracts normal and abnormal people alike from all walks of life. It’s because as a group, as a mob, they (we) behave like weak-minded zealots. And nuanced tweets that look carefully at both sides of the argument (assuming you can even do that in 140-character chunks) don't go viral.

Twitter lets you follow whoever you like, which in practice means that most people are just listening to variations and echoes of their own opinions - opinions which are therefore more likely to be retweeted, restated, copied or amplified than challenged. And in the quest to be heard above the din, users necessarily compete to state the party line in ever more aggressive forms.

Of course, most tweets - even the hateful, vicious claptrap that people with high follower counts (which doesn't include me) have to deal with constantly - don't develop into witch hunts. But it's only a matter of time before the next outrage of the day in one particular Twitter subsphere hits a critical mass and explodes.

Witch hunts and lynchings

The danger with witch hunts is their addictiveness. Who among us hasn't got giddily caught up at least once as someone we despise gets their agonising comeuppance? And who can't remember the first resignation (or arrest!) they really enjoyed? For me it was Jeffrey Archer, although in those pre-Twitter days you had to get your kicks watching the news rather than exulting over the developments on social media.

Some of the names above belong to irredeemable monsters with blood on their hands and deaths on their conscience, and the thousands - maybe millions - that have called for their heads on social media no doubt did so with that lovely feeling that they were 100 percent on the side of the angels. But once you’ve grabbed your pitchfork and joined the angry mob going after a theocratic war criminal, it's a short step before you're doing the same thing for someone who takes the mickey out of England football supporters. Or someone who just makes videos about computer games that you don’t agree with.

And it gets worse. Let's think a little more about the last name up there. (Coincidentally - and, I suppose, for full disclosure - I sub-edited perhaps five or six of Lord McAlpine's columns for The World of Interiors in my first job, although I never met him.) In 2012 a rumour spread on Twitter that Alistair McAlpine had been accused of child abuse in a care home in north Wales, an accusation that would later prove to be the result of mistaken identity and wholly false. But by then his name was known throughout the country and his reputation was in ruins.

In this case, as it happens, the old-fashioned media was almost as incautious in its coverage of the affair as social media, and the BBC and ITV each paid McAlpine more than a hundred thousand pounds in damages. But it's debatable whether the rumour would have developed beyond the cryptic "senior Conservative" referred to on Newsnight if it wasn't for the actions of amateur sleuths on Twitter - many of whom had in turn to pay fines to charity when it emerged that McAlpine was innocent.

Getting offended

By way of a final thought I will make a confession.

Back in my days working for PC Advisor, I once went to a PR Christmas party that was themed around the concept of giving. Various displays around the room showed trinkets and gadgets (cool things, but very much 'stuff you don't need') that the organising company sold on its website, and each one was labelled with an apposite quote by a well-known writer. One of the quotes was by Anne Frank, and I thought that using the poor girl as the mouthpiece for a marketing campaign was pretty shabby.

(That's how I would have put it, I think. I was very wary of the idea of taking 'offence', which was something that happened to Mary Whitehouse-esque killjoys who wanted to ban amazing video games, not to vigorous young journalists. But really, it amounted to the same thing.)

So I did what offended members of the media did before we had Twitter accounts: I got into the office the next day, rang the company for comment, and then wrote an article about it. I am still embarrassed thinking about it.

(Fine. Here is a link. Go easy on me; I was young. Youngish. Although at least it yielded one of the funniest 'right to reply' comments I've ever used: "Of course, we appreciate that Anne Frank was not writing about remote-control robots when she wrote 'No one has ever become poor by giving', nor did we mean to imply that she was.")

Why am I so embarrassed by that article? I don't know, exactly, although I think it's something to do with the tone. The tone says, "Something has happened which I don't approve of, and it's my duty to make sure everyone knows about it." And even though I protested that I didn't want to ban anything, or get anyone fired, rereading it makes me wonder what exactly I did hope to achieve.

In the end there's nothing wrong with thinking things are shabby and complaining about them, even if you do insist on referring to that process as "calling out", as if you're the world's referee. There were self-appointed moral arbiters around long before Twitter (I was writing articles like that one several years before I joined the social network, after all) and they will continue to exist long after we run out of oil and everyone has to farm turnips all day long. But Twitter has given the complainers a voice, the ear of the world's media, and the power to ruin lives and careers.

So sure: the next time a newsreader uses the wrong word or a video game fails to provide the right mode or a footballer wears the wrong kind of trousers then by all means complain about it on Twitter. Just remember that nobody is perfect; and that your no-doubt measured and dignified protest will do one of two things: disappear without trace because nobody cares, or get distorted beyond all recognition as everyone jumps on board the bandwagon, and end up losing someone their job - or worse.

I miss the days when complaints had to be sent through the post. But I suppose we would have run out of green ink eventually.

Read more

Rather than linking to related stories on this site, I wanted to highlight two very perceptive discussions of the Twitter mob mentality I've talked about here by two very different sources elsewhere: Buzzfeed and The Spectator. I highly recommend both articles.