The Viral Urge That 'Killed' Queen Elizabeth
Rarely does a week go by when I don't block or "mute" trolls on Twitter. From abuse about my appearance to anti-Semitism and expletive-filled messages (not suitable for a family newspaper), the tide of online harassment can, at times, seem overwhelming.
It's why I wasn't surprised to see new statistics showing that more than 16,000 alleged crimes involving Facebook and Twitter were reported to police during the past year. According to the Ministry of Justice, forces all over Britain have experienced a sharp rise in people claiming they are victims of online harassment and abuse.
After last week, Ahmen Khawaja might just be one of them. The 31-year-old BBC reporter made a breathtaking gaffe when she mistakenly told Twitter that the Queen had died. Whoops.
Khawaja's first tweet read "BREAKING: Queen Elizabeth is being treated at King Edward 7th Hospital in London. Statement due shortly." This was followed by "Queen Elizabrth [sic] has died".
Both messages were swiftly deleted and Khawaja dismissed them as a "silly prank", suggesting she'd left her phone at home. In reality, the rogue messages appear to have been sent while the corporation was staging a rehearsal for reporting the monarch's death. The BBC has since apologised.
Social media was not amused. Thousands of people have called for Khawaja to be sacked. The milder comments referred to her as a moron. One user simply wrote "mudscum immigrant b----".
I can't agree with a word of it. Because BREAKING: we're all to blame.
The clue is in the tweet. Although the BBC has refused to clarify how the error occurred, it seems likely that Khawaja overheard the dress rehearsal and drew the wrong conclusion. In her haste to break the news, she did what any social media user might and reached for her phone.
Yes, it was knee-jerk. Yes, it was thoughtless. But to me, Khawaja is a victim of a "breaking news culture", in which the desire to be seen as a source (regardless of whether you're in the media, or not) can too often cloud our judgment.
#Breaking is one of the most used hashtags on Twitter. In the past 30 days alone it's been written almost half a million times.
So desperate are we social media users to "go viral" and have our 15 minutes of internet fame that we push aside common sense. We crave attention. But at what cost?
It's inevitable that mistakes will be made. Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela were both written off well before their time on Twitter. In 2013, reports that Barack Obama had been injured in an attack on the White House sent the stock market into a brief freefall.
But rather than think "there but for the grace of God", we live in a culture where any social media slip-up is met by a slavering online lynch mob and a torrent of abuse.
It's grim. Honestly, which of us Twitter users hasn't deleted a tweet? And who hasn't accidentally sent an ill-advised email and breathed a sigh of relief that the mistake wasn't broadcast to the world?
Blocking and reporting trolls might be part of our digital routine, but an increasing number of social media users are finding it hard to cope with. Let's face it, few of us are faced with such venom and verbal abuse in the offline world.
There have been successful prosecutions for cyber-bullying. The man who threatened to rape Stella Creasy MP was jailed last year under the Malicious Communications Act (there are no laws that deal specifically with trolling). New legislation to protect the victims of "revenge porn" attacks has already led to conviction.
But we need to take online abuse more seriously. Telling people that "it's not real life" isn't the answer. Cyber-bullying is aggressive, threatening and frequently sexual. It's frightening.
And it can seep into "real life", anyway. For someone like Khawaja, the boundary between online persona and professional life will have been completely blurred.
Of course, her biggest error was in not owning up to her mistake. Everyone gets it wrong at work sometimes (though, admittedly, not everyone kills off the head of state). Had she put her hand up, rather than trying to deflect the blame, she may have had an easier ride and might not be the subject of disciplinary action by the BBC.
That she didn't feel able to do so sadly reflects the brutal forum, devoid of compassion, that social media has become.