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Beware of the dark side

Interactions on social media can be a diverting distraction, but they also have the potential to be lethal

Many years ago, I was involved in an accident on the road between Killarney and Tralee. It was one of those cartoon-accordion pile-ups, with four or five vehicles scrunching into each other in slow motion after the first car braked suddenly. None of us was going particularly fast, and thankfully no-one was seriously injured. I was in the middle car, neither the cause nor the effect of the whole debacle, just the innocent intermediary. I stood at the side of the road, looking on at the various emotions playing out all around me: Anger, fear, blame, guilt, worry, frustration. I wasn’t too bothered by the whole thing — my car was nothing special anyway, the damage was superficial, and I was late for a job that I felt under-trained and unsupported in, so I was quite enjoying this excuse for mitching in the early-morning Kerry sun. Eventually, however, the gardaí had taken all our details, the tow-trucks had arrived for the first and last cars, and we all went on our merry way.

More recently, I was involved in a different kind of pile-up, though I think the technical term here is ‘pile-on’. Again, I was just a peripheral figure in the drama, but it affected me far more than my Killarney collision. On social media, it can happen that someone can decide that you have braked too suddenly in front of them, infringed their way forward, blocked their path, and they can encourage all of their mates to ram into the back of you. They can point and shout and say, ‘You! You’re a terrible driver! Get off the road! And your car is ugly! It’s not even the right colour! You should never have come this way at all! Guards, arrest her!’ Anyone else who is in the line of fire very wisely sniffs the wind and starts shooing the flames in your direction. ‘Why, yes, I once had a car that colour but I knew straight away it was hideous, so I brought it straight back to the garage! I would never make that mistake again! She is a fool!’

And on it goes. If you choose to speak out on an emotive topic, you will be set upon by the angry mob. You will wonder what it is that motivates people to lash out publicly, to denigrate and despise, to unleash such venom and vitriol. I only said that it’s pronounced ‘scone’, not ‘scon’, for God’s sake. The wave of hate can be strong, overwhelming, and absolutely shocking. It kicks you right in your core, making you double-over and try to catch your breath while the blows keep coming on your back, shoulders, head, legs and right into your heart.

When our children start school, we hope and pray that they will feel safe and loved while they are out of our sight. When they start their foray into the online world, we are terrified of the demons that they will encounter, the nasty, predatory monsters, the gruesome ghouls lurking in the depths of the deep dark web. Of course, the people they need to be most careful of is their peers, and themselves. The false sense of invisibility that comes from having a screen between you and the world makes people think that what they type with their fingers is not as real as what they say with their mouths. It is all too easy to find yourself smugly agreeing with a nasty comment, and tapping the ‘like’ button before moving on to the cute video of the puppy in a bucket. Or wading-in on a topic about which you know quite a lot, but not actually everything, and when your knowledge gap is exposed, you defensively lash out. ‘Yes, but no, but yes, but’, as the great debater Vicky Pollard would say. Or the classic whataboutery — ‘you can’t say that about X, because what about Y?’

Social media has given many of us so many wonderful opportunities and insights, and has broadened our horizons immeasurably. It is a sanctuary and a refuge when times are tough, a welcome distraction from the mundanity of everyday life. But it is potentially lethal. It can suck you into a murky void and make you forget which direction you were headed. It can nurture your dark side (I have watched all nine Star Wars movies in the last few weeks — apologies). It can throw lighter fluid onto your smouldering anxieties and magnify all of your perceived imperfections.

I try very hard to stay on the periphery and not get sucked in. I try to stand in the ditch at the side of the road while driver one and driver five roar at each other about who owes what to whom, and whose BMW is most in need of immediate repair. I wait for the tow-trucks to come, and then I move along again, watchful of the other cars, staying out of the way of the road-hogs and rage merchants. My father’s favourite mantra, as he taught us all to drive, was “care, courtesy and common sense”. I try to bring that with me when I stray onto the social media superhighway. And always, always try to #bekind.

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