Up Close: When social media turns anti-social

A generic image representing an online troll in front of computer screens.
Calls have long been made for better protections for social media users. Credit: UTV

It can be all too easy to dismiss online abuse as “just the way it is”, but it takes a toll on mental health and has been linked to numerous suicides – so just who is policing social media?

Social media is now a multi-billion pound industry and the mainstream platforms themselves will insist they do their best when it comes to keeping users safe.

However, the lived experiences of many tell a different tale. One of struggles to stop hate campaigns by those hiding behind the anonymity the internet has to offer, or to even identify them.

While examining the issue, Up Close spoke to the mum of an Omagh teenager who died by suicide after years of cruel online comments.

Elle Trowbridge who died by suicide aged 16 after years of online bullying. Credit: Family photo

“She came into my room late one night and she said: ‘Mummy, look at this…’ She was crying her eyes out,” Mandy Chisum recalled. 

“She showed me her phone and the messages Elle was sent of how to harm herself and how to take her own life were just harrowing.”

Elle was just 16 when she died, found by her younger brother.

Social media has become a go-to for socialisation and connectivity, for information, and even for business and that has only been heightened by the global pandemic pushing more of us to spend more time than ever online.

And so, for those who fall victim to trolling or bullying, simply switching off or trying to ignore abuse may not be a practical option.

Mandy herself refers to the online realm as the “Wild West”, where behaviour that would not be acceptable offline can often go unchecked.

However, in many ways, younger generations can be more switched on to the perils and pitfalls of the internet.

For all the admittedly still valid concerns over the things children may be exposed to, it is often adults who fall far short of accepted offline standards in their online conduct.

Even in the era of “be kind”, there can be a readiness to jump to confrontation – a fundamental failure to connect on a human level with those we engage with from behind screens and keyboards.

For those who live and work in full view of the public gaze, it can be particularly challenging.

Politicians expect to be robustly challenged, criticised and held to account.

However, Up Close hears from those who have faced misogyny, callous references to personal circumstances far beyond even the usual cut and thrust of politics, and even death threats.

Robin Swann tells Up Close that his long career in politics, including a stint as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, had not prepared him for the abuse and death threats he faced as a health minister dealing with a global pandemic and an undercurrent of conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers.

To examine the impact of social media’s dark side and look at what more can be done to tackle the problem, Up Close speaks to a range of experts from across cyber safety, policing and mental health.

Presenter Jordan Moates is joined in the studio by guests including former Nato intelligence officer Philip Ingram and Northern Ireland’s Mental Health Champion Professor Siobhan O’Neill.

The programme also hears from some of the biggest social media platforms themselves on regulation and transparency.

Catch up with Up Close here.

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