A Note on “Weaponising” Social Media Abuse By Claiming Victimhood

From Douglas Murray at the Spectator:

Last week I wrote in this space about Cathy Newman’s catastrophic interview with the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson. Since then a number of things have happened. One is that millions of people around the world have watched Newman’s undisguisedly partisan interview. The other is that Channel 4 has tried to turn the tables by claiming victimhood.

…Of course genuine threats against public figures should be treated with the utmost seriousness. Actual threats require the police to get involved. Threatening anybody with violence is not only wrong but a crime. People mocking you mercilessly on the other hand (‘So what you’re saying, Professor Peterson, is that lobster women should be paid less lobster money than men’) is neither a police matter nor even a matter for security specialists. It’s something that everybody in the public eye has to deal with, and only certain types of people try to weaponise to their own advantage.

The interview has been dissected in some detail by Conor Freidersdorf at the Atlantic; it is reasonable to take the view that in this instance the aggressive scepticism that we like to see from journalists in conversation with public figures was compromised by Newman’s personal animosity, resulting in misjudged lines of attack that repeatedly misrepresented her interview subject. After the interview, it was reported that Newman had been “rocked” by death threats and that her employer had brought in a security specialist.

So who are these “certain types of people” of whom Murray speaks? Murray doesn’t say – instead, he changes the subject by complaining that while there has been high-profile sympathy for Newman, there was nothing comparable when it was revealed during a terror trial that an Islamist terrorist had expressed a wish to behead Katie Hopkins. This then segues into a rebuke of those who have made merry over the fact that Hopkins is currently selling her house, apparently to meet her financial obligations after losing a libel case (a case in which she had acknowledged making a false claim but had refused to apologise).

In fact, what Murray refers to as ” tr[ying] to turn the tables by claiming victimhood” is standard practice these days. I looked at two examples just last month. One concerned a Mail on Sunday front page splash blaming Jeremy Corbyn for abusive comments received by a Conservative MP after Corbyn quite reasonably denounced his banter in the House of Commons (the article even uses the phrase “the MP turned the tables on Mr Corbyn” in relation to his complaint). The other example was the ludicrous press coverage of the Stop Funding Hate campaign, which for the most part has consisted of “exposing” uncivil Tweets by random individuals who have RTed Tweets posted by the campaign – thus criticism of the press becomes “online hatred”.

The point is not that those on the receiving end of social media incivility – whether abuse, harassment or threats – are wrong to complain publicly, or that the media should ignore it. Rather, it is that coverage should be proportionate and precise, and that there should be some scepticism when this sort of thing diverts attention away from legitimate criticism or is used to stigmatise or intimidate critics by supposed association.

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