In modern day witch burnings, the fire starts slowly.
A snarky tweet; some Facebook trolling; calls for the sack. Then the flames leap higher, searing your soul. Your life, loved ones, and property are threatened: a flicker ignites an inferno.
That’s what it’s like being consumed by the social media lynch mob.
“I’ve been working in social media long enough to understand the mob mentality and its cycle: Someone stuffs up, or says something that offends someone, and it takes off, ” says long-time blogger Kayte Woog (who writes as Mrs Woog).
Its latest victim is much-loved comedian and author, Jean Kittson. Her crime? A less-than-perfect performance on ABC TV’s Q&A.
In the past, armchair critics would confine their comments to the lounge room. Now, like an endlessly looping film, both old and new media take turns to kick her while she’s down.
Despite being an intelligent woman, she’s labelled an “airhead”, “dumb blonde”, and “bimbo”.
Sure, it’s sexist, but, at its heart, the punishment of heretics – those who hold an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted – is about power, profile, and politics.
And it’s bad on both sides of the political fence: Kittson pilloried by the Left for her comment about university fees; me hounded by the Right for a tweet about Tony Abbott’s wink.
In both cases, the conflict on social media was picked up by tabloid newspapers, and fed back into the Twitterverse for a second round of bullying.
As figures in the public eye, we expect to be criticised for expressing opinions, courting controversy, and writing columns that can be ill-conceived. What we don’t expect is to be called a witch, bitch, fishwife, trollop, slut, slag, maggot, man-hater, and ignorant cunt (and that’s just what I’ve copped in the past 48 hours.)
Nor do we expect to be threatened with death, or rape, by people who know where we live.
Columnist and radio broadcaster Yumi Stynes knows what it’s like.
Police were brought in after an online hate campaign, including physical threats against her family, sparked by her description of an Australia war hero as a “dud root” on Network Ten’s The Circle. Stynes apologised but was dumped from the show.
Guest co-host George Negus, who posed the question, “That sort of bloke… what if they’re not up to it in the sack?” escaped the crossfire.
“I reckon women cop it more than men… they never get that degree of vitriol,” according to Studio 10 co-host and writer Jessica Rowe.
During her time on Channel 9’s Today Show, critics targeted her weight, laugh, and hairstyle: “Thank God Twitter wasn’t around then. The emails and columns were horrendous. It hurt like hell.”
Certainly, the anonymity of the internet promotes a herd mentality.
As Robert Fisk writes in The Independent this week, “Something is rotten in the state of technology”.
He tells the story of an Irish government minister who’d committed suicide just before Christmas, partly because – according to his brother at the graveside – he’d received so many abusive messages on the net.
“The response from those claiming to be ‘readers’ of this newspaper was 1) to suggest that the brother was lying; 2) that the minister deserved to die because of his policies (which included cuts in care homes); and 3) to condemn the dead minister for not being thoughtful enough to postpone his suicide until after Christmas,” Fisk writes.
“Now, anonymity must be protected, cosseted, guarded, because privacy, even privacy to abuse, is more important than responsibility.”
Despite receiving some serious death threats recently, I still support freedom of voice, when fighting for democracy against tyranny, or amplifying the concerns of the disenfranchised.
As columnist and broadcaster Joe Hildebrand told SBS Insight in 2012: “…the argument that people keep pulling out is that if you don’t like trolling or if you don’t like being abused, get off the internet. That is exactly the same as saying to someone if you don’t like being bashed or you don’t like being raped, then don’t walk the streets. Stay locked in your house. It’s a completely unfair, unrealistic and psychopathic thing to say to people.”
Perhaps we should be listening to the digital natives. One friend, sobbing up in a corner after being savaged on social media, was comforted by her 15-year-old son.
“Mum,” he said sternly, “These people aren’t even real. Look, this one’s got an egg and only two followers. Block and ignore.”
But sometimes that’s easier said than done. In the midst of a recent episode, I felt agoraphobic, afraid to leave the house.
Fairfax columnist and UTS academic Jenna Price offers some sage advice: “Make sure you’re in contact with other people. Nothing is more terrifying than being alone when dealing with trolls. And remember, a block button is a woman’s best friend.”
Despite saying she’s “used to it by now”, Price has just endured 24 hours of abuse, with someone trying to hack into her Facebook account.
“There are always going to be haters,” Jess Rowe contends. “But, as my grandma used to say, I’m not going to let them take away my sense of peace. Bugger the lot them. I take my cues from those close to me.”
In circumstances like this, we need to have each other’s backs.
I was fortunate to have Jenna Price, Wendy Harmer, Mia Freedman, Kerri Sackville and Kayte Woog offering sisterly support.
So, Jean, we’re with you.
“I liken it to throwing a great big boulder into a lake,” Woog says.
“The big splash, and it is on for young and old. Everyone jumps in and has their outraged say. Then the aftermath, the ripples as the topic is shredded, and the noise starts to die down until there are calm waters again. Waiting, for the next person to stuff up in someone’s eyes.”
Back in the 17th century, witches were burned because fire is a purifier: the sinner is cleansed.
What the trolls need to remember is, they also ended up dead.
Watch Gabrielle Jackson discuss the issue with the Studio 10 panel: