It was a quiet, ordinary night on 17 of February, when Mary Beard, a professor of classical studies in the university of Cambridge, posted a photo of herself on Twitter. This would act would be of none significance in the age of online social networks and selfies. Instead, the photo was not a usual one, since it was showing her crying. What was the reason that incited Mary Beard to share a so unconventional photo and what was actually the reason she was crying?
A few minutes earlier, the professor which counts over than 20.000 followers on Instagram, was the victim of a bullying assault online. The storm of negative and venomous comments had broken in after Mary Beard had made a comment online, considering the Oxfam Haiti scandal and the United Nations implication on prostitutes sexual exploitation and abuse. Her comment was:
“Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us would not tread.”
The comment of the prominent professor was interpreted as Beard excusing the alleged sexual abuse of women and girls, and many took it as an opportunity to abuse Beard. Among the furious comments was that from fellow Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, who tweeted that “this kind of thing is the progressive end of the institutional culture I have to survive day in day out” and “Cambridge desperately needs a Breaking the Silence on racism. About time and beyond.” In a following tweet Dr Gopal satirised Prof Beard, writing: “Obviously it’s not a great idea to randomly get your d**k out, rape people etc. But it’s not easy to be politically correct while in s**tholes. And overall I still respect people who head out to s**tholes ‘cos I sure as hell wouldn’t dream of it’.”d”.
In a second tweet Mary Beard posted the aforementioned photo of herself saying she was left “sitting here crying”, and wrote in her blog about the fierce criticism she had experienced.
Such constant barrages of abuse, including death threats and sexual offending are quite often in social media platforms. According to a 2017 survey conducted by Maeve Duggan, roughly four-in-ten Americans have personally experienced online harassment, and 62% consider it a major problem. Why Social media platforms are an especially fertile ground for online harassment, and what lies behind the transformation of “fair” people to furious online trollers?
Simon Lindgren, professor of Sociology and author of the book “Digital Media & Society” seeds some light on human online behavior. Hosting the opinions of prominent researchers among whom Citron’s, who has written that “that people are more inclined towards antisocial behaviour, and joining bigoted mobs, when interaction happens online – relatively anonymously, asynchronously, and so on”, Simon Lindgren makes an interesting approach on online hatred, finalizing his approach with a reference to the so-called Garnergate controversy in late 2014.
Speaking specifically on Garnergate case, Citron has argued that at some point, it is difficult for the system to control criminal liability in internet hatred storms, where there’s such a huge number of actors. Mary’s Beard case is undoubtfully such a case.
- Simon Lindgren, “Digital Media and Society”, 2017, Sage Publications
- “Why nice people become mean online”, 2018, article, by Gaia Vince, Mosaic, published in https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/03/health/good-people-bad-online-partner/index.html