Fire and fury and homicidal urges on the scary social platform that is Twitter
OPINION: After one ill-judged tweet Pebbles Hooper became the New Zealand expert in the lynch mob that is Twitter. So when Damien Grant's provocative tweeting annoyed someone so much this week that they sent round the police, he knew what to do: Call Pebbles.
I'm used to seeing the police at my front door so it didn't come as shock when the wife informed me that I had a uniformed visitor.
At first I assumed they'd discovered my stash of corpses in the Woodhill Forest, but decided it was more likely he was there to confiscate my licence as I'm well over the 100 demerit points (more on that in a later column).
But no. Officer Collins was there because of a tweet I'd sent some hours before. A tweet. You can imagine my delight. Producing a column each week is a creative burden which is why some writers are reduced to alternating between climate change and bovine effluent so seeing this week's column literally wander up my driveway was a huge bonus.
I knew immediately what the offending tweet was and wasn't that surprised that someone had complained to the police nor, sadly, that the police had seen fit to send an officer out to investigate. I was, not for the first time, the focus of someone's attempt to whip up outrage at something I'd said or done.
The first time I'd experienced this phenomenon was when my past crimes and imprisonment for fraud were leaked to the NBR and there was a rush of excitement about how a right-wing business columnist and liquidator had been exposed. The NBR story was fair, balanced and factual but the excitement amongst the trolls wasn't. Thankfully for me my Sunday paper editor, Bryce Johns, wasn't a man to be pushed around and he briefly increased the length and frequency of my column.
The storm passed as quickly as it began and five years on my career remains unaffected.
Others have not been as lucky.
PEBBLES THE 'PERFECT MEAN GIRL'
Perhaps our most egregious victim of an enthusiastic social media mob is the elfin writer Pebbles Hooper.
Hooper sent a tweet and her world ended. She led the TV news for several nights running, was fired from her media gigs and found herself the centre of a gleeful global mob of the self-righteous. Huffington Post and the Daily Mail joined in the fun and we collectively and not very secretly thrilled at her public destruction. We all enjoy a good witch-burning and as Hooper now recognises, she was the perfect mean-girl foil for a whipped up mob.
The 27-year-old is still defensive about that tweet; She posted that natural selection might have been in play when four family members died in an Ashburton tragedy. She understands why people were so upset, and she isn't making excuses.
Career-wise it's been incredibly damaging. "I'm still untouchable" she tells me with regret when we catch up for coffee in Ponsonby.
She didn't leave her house for a week and somewhat obsessively read every one of the thousands of negative social media criticisms. "I went a long way down that rabbit hole, sometimes I think I'm still there."
Looking back she thinks that she was probably bound to come unstuck at some point but the ferocity and reach of the lynch mob has left her damaged. Now living back at home she sees her life in two; before that tweet and after.
Having been through what few of us can even imagine, Hooper is sanguine and reflective. She understands that her suffering has given many people a great deal of joy and accepts that her writing career is thrashed. She fled to Sydney for a while, "but we're so connected, there isn't anywhere to go" she states flatly.
She is resigned to being "that girl".
"No one stood by me" she notes. But then she recalls that some, like Deborah Hill Cone, who have been through their own public shaming, did reach out to offer advice and these few small acts stand out.
There were some, Hooper believes, who used the her misfortune to try and gain some relevance for themselves but she sees this as being part of a wider story. Everyone around her looked at her crisis as an opportunity or a risk; she instantly ceased to be a person.
Why do we care what Hooper has to say about anything? She doesn't know. "I am superficial. Not going to deny that" she tells me.
But that's rubbish. Maybe she was before, but 40 minutes into a conversation it's clear that Hooper has evolved because of what has happened to her. She's bright, entertaining, self-aware and looking to re-engage with the world.
Many readers will not care. Hooper's public image isn't one that lends itself to sympathy and she isn't looking for any – but that isn't the point.
What is sobering is the willingness of those professionally close to her to cut her loose. She was 25 when she sent the tweet that threatens to now define her. She'd been employed by various media outfits precisely because she skirted the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
To point to the content of her tweet as an excuse for the outcry is hypocritical nonsense; but for the reporting and outcry the family of those affected would have been completely unaware. The entire story was an orgy of self-indulgent feigned outrage by people who were indifferent to the underlying tragedy. They just wanted a show and the destruction of an inconsequential gossip columnist was the best fun to be had that week.
When you see someone in trouble the right thing is to help them, not pile on. Hooper was an idiot to be sure, but she didn't deserve to have her life destroyed by the whipped up frenzy of petty social media hacks who live for the thrill of seeing other's destroyed. The adults and media professionals who enabled her reckless behaviour owed her a duty of care; instead they rushed to join the lynch mob, casting her aside in the hope that none of her blood would stain their garments.
A ROYAL ROASTING
John Tamihere has far greater resources and influence than Hooper can dream off but that counted for nothing when he, too, became the focus of an outpouring of feigned outrage over his interview of a talkback caller during the Roast Busters scandal.
The mavens of social media declared the interview to be victim-blaming and within days several brands, including the Mad Butcher, ANZ and Telecom, pulled their advertising.
Unlike Hooper, Tamihere doesn't feel trapped by the incident but he's still angry about what happened. "Pathetic" he fumes about the advertisers' conduct when I interviewed him. "The Mad Butcher's slogan is that you can't beat his meat. When did they get a moral compass?"
But Tamihere raises a serious issue. Who sets the editorial policy for news organisations, editors or the advertisers? "If you fold you allow advertisers to influence editorial policy."
Tamihere's view is that the advertisers were morally weak. He was subsequently exonerated by an internal Mediaworks investigation and received an unqualified apology and a handsome cheque for his troubles. By ditching him and co-host Willie Jackson they placed their own short-term economic returns before any other considerations, which he understands but thinks is hypocritical given they cut him loose for supposed unethical behaviour.
'GOOD LUCK TO HIM'
Tamihere has lost none of his quick banter that made him so much fun on the radio and our discussion quickly moves to the scandal of the week; Aaron Smith.
"He's fit, young, good looking, good luck to him" Tamihere chortled, but then honed in on the critical issue.
"If the All Black management give in to this nonsense and sack him they set a precedent. Caving in to the mob only emboldens more mob activity."
The periodic public destruction of minor celebrity figures has become so endemic author Jon Ronson has been able to put together a book on the subject; dissecting a number of well known examples, including the unfortunate case of Justine Sacco, whose pre-flight tweet about catching Aids in Africa led to a gleeful outpouring of vitriol.
Ronson concludes with the insight that we have created an environment where "... we are creating a stage for constant artificial high dramas, where everyone is either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. We can live good ethical lives, but some bad phraseology in a Tweet can overwhelm, it all…"
THE OFFENDING TWEET
Thankfully, my offending weekend Tweet didn't lead to anything beyond a police visit, which delighted my four-year-old son. He literally hugged the police car and almost imploded with excitement when the Officer obligingly turned on the lights. Officer Collins was everything you'd hope a policeman to be; good natured, bright and armed with a Taser. It wasn't his decision to come out. Someone had laid a formal complaint to the police, as well as writing to my current editor, who, rather than react in horror and fake outrage contracted me to write this column.
Which is exactly how managers who employ people like me should react when we say dumb things on Twitter.
And the tweet that started it all? Well. I'll leave the merits of that for you to decide.
"How do I reconcile my libertarian beliefs with my homicidal desires."
- Sunday Star Times