Paul Hosford: The only way to win an argument online is to care less

Paul Hosford: The only way to win an argument online is to care less

YOU may or may not be aware of Taryn de Vere.

She is a writer, podcaster, and fashion designer who is active on Twitter. To lift the January gloom, Ms de Vere has taken to dressing like household objects, the more colourful the better.

While most have found her splash of colour a tonic in the back-to-work gloom, not everyone agrees, as Ms de Vere tweeted on Wednesday.

“I’ve reached the point where I’m now getting hate mail,” she wrote.

“Imagine reading about someone being joyful & creative and CHOOSING to spend your time creating horrible messages & images to send to that person. I really feel for these people who are so resentful of joy & authenticity.”

Hate mail for dressing up in colourful clothes is the current online experience in a microcosm.

Taryn de Vere: Hate mail for dressing up in colourful clothes is the current online experience in a microcosm.

While nobody would argue that Twitter was ever a bastion of civility, the 22 months of pandemic life has made it much, much worse. This is understandable. More people have more time and more reason to be upset and frustrated and, instead of processing those feelings, are lashing out at others online. This has become a particular issue in our politics in the last two years, with the well turning more and more poisonous it seems weekly, with sides being picked by a minority of hardcore supporters on all sides. And it is all sides.

Political posts

The term Shinnerbot has been part of the Irish Twitter lexicon for some time. While originally about automated accounts that popped up whenever there was a mention of Sinn Féin, it is now more frequently used as a derogatory term for anyone online whose politics is similar to that party’s.

Those most fervent posters still exist, unquestionably, but post about the other two mid-sized parties and you are equally likely to meet anonymous accounts questioning everything from your moral fibre to your parentage.

This is not to say that anonymity should be done away with online, because that is something with which I deeply disagree. I am a child of the internet age of message boards for bands I loved and I understand how anonymity can be liberating and add to the experience. But the key to those interactions was that there was always a balance.

The person was entitled to know as much about you as you permitted and any judging of your character or opinions had to be based on your posts. Now, that balance is skewed. It is a case of a person whose name and face and entire work history are freely available against someone with a picture of a football crest or historical figure as an avatar who can change their occupation, age, and politics on a whim.

And the answer there is, frequently, very simple — don’t engage. The first rule of the internet is that the only way to win an argument is to care less. Those who can’t be bothered setting a username do not care and should not be treated as honest brokers.

Twitter trolls

But the issue with anonymity online is that it too often comes with the appearance of a tacit endorsement of real people.

Recently, a Twitter account was shut down for persistent trolling of, among others, a friend of mine. Twitter being Twitter, they were back with a new account in a day and among the first things they did was send a private message to my friend, taunting them about their return.

Now, the person running the account could be anyone, but among its first followers when it returned was a slew of real people — adults with their names and jobs and locations in their bios, among them two national journalists and a public representative. This was not following someone with whom you disagree for a multitude of opinions, it was a rush to see what a person announcing themselves as a troll would say to people.

This tacit endorsement — following people who will say the basest things that you can’t or won’t to people whose politics you disagree with — is the online equivalent of kicking someone while they’re wrestling in the mud with an opponent. Just because you stay clean doesn’t mean your shoes don’t get dirty.

Taryn de Vere,  a writer and designer from County Donegal, set herself a style challenge to dress up as a different household product every day to make January more joyful. 

And not “all sides” this argument, but it is one which exists on all sides. Supporters, members, and politicians from nearly every party follow accounts that regularly engage in abusive behaviour or watch as real people become the subject of orchestrated personal attacks.

And, look, following an account that is doing these things is not a character flaw. Many people don’t use Twitter a lot, some follow a lot of accounts, and others genuinely don’t see the worst things tweeted — we are none of us the keeper of those we follow, though we can call out what we see when we see it and not just write off the abuse of a person because we don’t like their politics.

Especially in a week when the Government proposed a powerful online regulator that would be able to fine tech companies for not tackling illegal content, it is worth taking the temperature of our on

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