Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The virtual mob spreading spite online

n biblical times, Syrian villagers would ritually chase a goat from their midst to atone for their sins. Last week Andrea Charman found out what it is like to be a modern day scapegoat, or in her case perhaps it should be scapesheep.

She was the well-respected head teacher in Romney Marsh, Kent who became subject to a hate campaign. So vicious was the abuse she received – both through her letter box, and particularly onto her computer – that she felt compelled to leave her post.

The cause of the hate was Marcus, a sheep that the school had reared to teach the children about the food chain. The pupils had voted for Marcus to be sent to slaughter and turned into chops and shanks, but a handful of parents complained. In times gone by a fractious parents’ meeting would have been enough for the objectors to air their views.

Now, we have the web. An online campaign was started. The comments on “Remove Andrea Charman from ever teaching again” duly rolled in, not just from parents in Kent, but from Belgium, and France and Los Angeles. A not untypical message was: “i’m gonna spit on her grave (thats gonna be very soon)”. Others threatened to burn the school down.

Last week, despite the overwhelming support of the pupils, teachers and governors, she decided to step down.

She is just one of an increasing number of people who have become caught up in what the internet community call “flame wars” – online petitions, or disagreements between two camps, that can spiral out of control.

The line between vigorous, heartfelt protest and mob rule has become ever thinner thanks to modern technology.

And those caught on the wrong side of the barricades often don’t know what’s hit them, as any hapless Mumsnetter – the term for the 850,000 women who use the online networking site Mumsnet – will tell you if they have posted a comment that other, more ferocious users disagree with. The site, which celebrates its 10th birthday next month, has been likened to a playground, in which bullies circle like sharks. Only last week, one woman was viciously, and very personally, derided when she lamented the crass language that has permeated the website.

Professor Barrie Gunter, head of mass communications at Leicester University, points out that the technology itself is not to blame for such viciousness. “The problem stems from the way people are able to operate anonymously; it is this that can be used as a force for evil. People can behave in a way online that they would never do in the normal, offline world. In the real world, social etiquette restrains people from doing and saying certain things. That restraint does not seem to be apparent on the internet.” Read more
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