Recounting the events from Saturday 9 March, Daniel Reast highlights the cruel and toxic environment of Twitter. How can politics and society function when its biggest forum is a battle royale?
Saturday was a horrible day. It was windy and raining, I had some severe withdrawal from a missed dose of medication, and the fuses blew on my kitchen lights. Truly horrific. But on Twitter a blend of bile and offence was swirling like a hurricane. It was not one single news story or controversy that had caused this fervour. But the whole day was characterised by anger.
It started with the now-confirmed news that Shamima Begum, the nineteen-year-old who will be stripped of her UK citizenship following her flee to join Islamic State, had lost her third child to pneumonia. The three-week-old boy Jarrah had “turned blue and was cold” before being confirmed dead at a Northern Syria refugee camp clinic. The day before, multiple sources were hinting at ‘strong’ signs the child had perished. The British media in all its typical spite reported the death to a mixture of shock, anger, and disgraceful celebration.
On Twitter, and the comment sections of the right-wing press, users were callously mocking Begum’s loss. It’s often said to never view the comment sections of newspaper websites like The Sun or The Daily Mail. However, it is through these sources, that the hatred of some comes to the fore.
With the hatred pressed against Begum and Diane Abbott’s compassionate response to the news, the nineteen-year-old’s father Ahmed Ali took the extraordinary step of apologising on his daughter’s behalf. On a video link interview with the BBC, he emotionally called for the British people to forgive her. The interview itself was held without Ali knowing of the child’s death. And yet, the comments rage.
In this case, the Home Secretary has blood on his hands. Sajid Javid’s announcement that Shamima will be stripped of her UK citizenship, while not directly responsible, was effectively a death sentence. The newborn child was a British citizen, born of a British mother. It deserved a life in this country as befits its nationality.
That life is now gone; gusted away by the Syrian winds. It is a moral failure for people to ignore the simple fact that a child has died, and its mother now sits in a camp with no family to hold. Everyone’s favourite reactionary vessel, Julia Hartley-Brewer, tweeted a monstrous take on the tragedy.
Shamima Begum is a victim, not without agency or fault, but a quarry for racism, nationalism, and the inhuman mutterings of heartless people. I seethed with anger when I read Hartley-Brewer’s cancerous tweet. Three children lost to mother in the space of four years – and her country throws her nothing but jibes and hatred. Truly grim.
The second half of my Twitter experience on Saturday was taken with watching the Left self-immolate over its perceived authority on what defines the working class. The whole battle was conceited and pathetic. Labour’s outriders from journalism sallied forth from their cocktail parties to attack Jess Phillips, whose interview with Rachel Sylvester from The Times provoked outrage from the Labour Left. I urge everyone to register with The Times for a paid or complimentary account to read Phillips’ interview. While you are there, give Luciana Berger’s a read too – they’re cut from the same cloth, and incredibly profound. Rachel Sylvester is an excellent interviewer and journalist too.
But it was the assertions from the Labour outriders that poisoned the cauldron. The interview with Jess Phillips was widely acclaimed across politics. One compliment came from the Conservative MP Nick Boles, with a lively if a little obscure tweet.
It’s a sweet tweet, in the kindest sense. Phillips receives abuse and harassment from across the political spectrum. In the interview, she reveals of her nine locks on the front door, and panic buttons to go directly to the police in case of trouble. Similar reports have come from other MPs, Ruth Smeeth and the frontbencher Angela Rayner, who was attacked online last week for a positive comment about Tony Blair.
But much to Boles and Phillips’ dignity, the Twitter activists were on full display with their hashtags waving about like a Chamberlain paper. It was from Labour’s Leftist journalist outriders that much of the backlash was formed around. The economics editor from New Statesman Grace Blakeley managed to misinterpret and ‘unknowingly’ direct more harassment towards Phillips and Boles as a result.
Blakeley is an intelligent journalist. This was beneath her, in morality and in politics. The full quote for reference:
“I feel like I can’t leave the Labour Party without rolling the dice one more time. I owe it that. But it doesn’t own me. It’s nothing more than a logo if it doesn’t stand for something I actually care about – it’s just a f***ing rose.” — Jess Phillips.
Blakeley then tweeted later in the evening that she had received threats and abuse, calling it “Great feminist praxis” in defence. I scanned through the Twitter comments, though not clinically, and I saw huge support for Jess Phillips, with many deriding Blakeley’s misquote. If Grace received threats and abuse, that is abhorrent to political discourse. No-one should engage in online abuse and harassment. That is a bottom line, which many on Twitter fail to bounce off.
Similarly, and to me more directly affecting, was in the case of Dawn Foster. She’s a talented writer and journalist working for the Guardian and Jacobin magazine. I was moved by her comment piece last month on how the UK should deradicalise Shamima Begum. It showed profound compassion amidst the fury of right-wing barrage. But her tweet which deeply misinterpreted Nick Boles’ compliment motivated a real backlash.
The backlash was fierce enough for Foster to delete her Twitter account. Nick Boles is very open about his sexuality, which in the Conservative Party is a remarkable and brave feat. So the tweet was a misinterpretation, received backlash, and forced a young and decent journalist off a sadly vital network. I wish Dawn every success. It was a crap tweet, but nothing should force one from their beliefs. It was this realisation that made me write this article.
I have been on Twitter since May last year. I have developed a network of kind voices and followers whom I associate with in spirit and political direction. It’s impossible to agree on everything, such is humanity. But I did not expect to see this atmosphere. I’m not a huge blue-ticked ogre on Twitter, nor do I wish to be. However, seeing the abuse and bitterness from users towards others makes me angry. It makes me depressed.
It’s true what critics say of Twitter. It’s a hellsite. A foul landfill of kind-hearted and beautiful people fighting a tsunami of hatred. If anyone has an optimistic approach to human nature, Twitter would throw a spear deep into the void where that optimism rests. Saturday didn’t teach me much in retrospect. I knew people could be arseholes on Friday evening. But I still looked on Twitter the next day.🔷
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(This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com. | The author writes in a personal capacity.)