WE need to talk about social media.
Good things have come from platforms like Twitter and Facebook: the ability to share and access important content widely and swiftly, a more powerful voice for people who might be denied access to traditional media, unparalleled global connection.
But, boy, is there a dark side.
On most platforms, it’s pretty easy to hide behind a pseudonym, and anonymity tends to give people a licence to act and speak in a way they would consider unacceptable in an encounter with somebody they knew IRL (that’s “in real life” for those not familiar with online acronyms).
Pre-Twitter, road rage was probably the most common way people diverted their underlying fury at the unfairness of life onto perfect strangers. How innocent that seems now.
Most people who are active and opinionated on Twitter cop a certain amount of abuse.
Some of it can be brushed off. Twitter trolls are generally not the sparkiest matches in the box and it’s not that hard to block and ignore a lone attacker.
The cumulative toll of online hatred, though, can be damaging. Australian journalist Ginger Gorman describes the impact powerfully in her book, Troll hunting: inside the world of online hate and its human fallout.
A particular kind of venom seems to be reserved for those who speak up for science, particularly when this relates to climate change or, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
As the UK grapples with a devastating third wave of the pandemic, British National Health Service doctor, Rachel Clarke, has discovered the perils of telling the truth online.
“I’ve been called Hitler, Shipman, Satan and Mengele for insisting on Twitter that our hospitals aren’t empty,” she writes in The Guardian. “For the crime of asserting on social media that COVID is real and deadly, I earn daily abuse from a vitriolic minority.
“I well understand why they want to gag us,” Dr Clarke goes on. “Our testimony makes COVID denial a tall order. We bear witness not to statistics but to human beings … The pregnant woman in her 20s on ICU, intubated and lifeless. The three generations of one family on ventilators, each of them dying one after the other. We humanise, empathise, turn the unfathomable dimensions of the 100 000 dead into mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers.”
Dr Clarke is not alone. On the day she wrote her article, another medical colleague was told: “You evil criminal lying piece of government shit. You need to be executed immediately for treason and genocide.”
For female doctors, as for women online generally, the abuse can be exacerbated by an extra layer of threatened sexual violence.
Dr Clarke cites an intensive care doctor who was told by a male “sceptic” that he intended to sexually abuse her until she needed one of her own ventilators.
Attempts by social media platforms to rein in bad behaviour have been erratic at best.
Facebook famously used to remove photos of women breastfeeding their babies for violating its nudity policy, but has mostly turned a blind eye to the widespread posting of disinformation on its site.
For people in Australia, that situation is set to get a whole lot worse. In a game of brinksmanship with our federal government, Facebook last week blocked Australian users from posting links to an enormous range of news articles published by media and other organisations.
The government wants the big online platforms to pay for the media content they host. Google has reached a deal to do that. Facebook is holding out.
The ABC reported the platform’s purge initially went well beyond what most of us would think of as news sites, removing content posted by the Bureau of Meteorology and various government health and emergency services authorities.
A Facebook spokesperson told the ABC that government posts were not intended to be affected by the changes and, if this had been done inadvertently, it would be fixed.
But that’s hardly the end of the matter. The large-scale removal of quality content from Facebook, whether from government sites or reputable news outlets, leaves the platform even more open to the proliferation of conspiracy theories and dangerous lies of all kinds.
It leaves many Australians less likely to see reliable, fact-based information on just about every topic you can imagine. That’s something that should worry all of us, whether we use the platform or not.
The big social media platforms are too powerful to be ignored. We can’t just abandon them to the liars and the haters, tempting as that might sometimes be.
Despite the hostility she has faced, Dr Clarke says speaking out increasingly feels like a moral imperative, “because perhaps – if we can only disprove enough untruths, if we can just slow the onslaught of disinformation – we may have fewer dying hands to hold in the future”.
It’s not going to be easy but, if we want voices like hers to continue being heard, we will somehow, belatedly, need to find ways to hold the social media behemoths to account.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and health writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.