Casualties of Revolution in Social Media

Leicester Mercury:  First Person column
Friday 10 October 2014

The Very Revd David Monteith reflects on the implications of the tragedy of Twitter trolls

The recent tragic death of Brenda Leyland in Leicester has brought sadness to our community.  My prayers are with her friends and family, as well as with the McCanns, who have found themselves in another media storm.  The inquest has opened with many imponderables.  We find we now have to face a new set of questions about the role of social media in our lives.

Anyone who follows blogs, or who reads newspapers online, never mind using Twitter or Facebook, knows that in addition to enhanced contact or engagement, there is a growing shadow to our e-lives.  Everything from terrorism, abuse, and despair can flourish on line.

I am no Luddite.  Indeed I am fascinated by the new possibilities offered to me by new communication.  I can speak in Leicester Cathedral and within minutes get feedback from California.

Everyone from our Chief Constable to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope now tweet.  Imagine someone like St Francis of Assisi or John Wesley with such tools at their disposal!

But in the past 12 months, I have also received a fair amount of at best angular and at worse abusive comments as we in the Cathedral have dealt with Richard III.

I’m made of strong stuff and recognise that some of this goes with the territory of leading a public life.  However, I’d be telling lies if it didn’t sometimes get to me, especially when it is so personal or just plain nasty.

Creativity has flourished through the e-revolution, but human beings also have dark sides.  Social media is a perfect mask for an unhinged, unaccountable self to run riot.

Social media enables connection, but it can become a depersonalised world, allowing us to express things which are maybe best unsaid, while in the real world of human interactions we learn to moderate our worst behaviour and we develop our best behaviour.

Our social media revolution is as significant as the invention of printing which ushered in the Enlightenment and Reformation.  Sadly, people lost their lives then as they learnt to live with this new powerful means of communication.

Unfortunately, our new e-world is shown to have just as powerful a dimension.  People die as we learn the rules and etiquette of engagement.

Wisdom helps us to discern the difference between the real and the unreal.  We will need plenty of it if the social media hope of connectivity and creativity isn’t completely blighted by the trolls.

Published in the Leicester Mercury, Friday 10 October 2014, page 15.