Something concerns me of recent in our society, and that is the tendency for people to spy on each other with technology. Social media, in particular, has become a common way to shame unsuspecting members of the public. Just this week there has been a nationwide hunt for a ‘love rat’ called Ben, after he was (apparently) overheard on a train boasting about his sexual escapades – despite having a girlfriend. The woman listening to his conversation, named on Twitter as Emily, couldn’t bear to keep any of this to herself – of course, why would she? – but instead wrote to all her followers: ‘If anyone has a boyfriend called Ben on the Bournemouth – Manchester train right now, he’s just told his friends he’s cheating on you. Dump his ass x’. Twenty-seven thousand Twitter users, at the time of writing, shared her post.
Perhaps Emily felt she had been the hero that day she chose to broadcast the conversation of what she describes as ‘a group of boys’, but one has to wonder where exactly it might lead to should anyone discover Ben’s real identity. People are pushed to the edge when they have been publicly shamed – so strong is the current of mass condemnation. Even Deborah Meaden posted about Ben on her Twitter account; eager to draw attention to the initial Tweet. Poor bloke, is all I can think. I hope he knows that, whatever his faults, I defend his right to boast on a train.
Unfortunately, it is becoming common for public to incriminate others through technology – in a strange type of vigilantism. In the past, mobile phones were used in reasonable ways to promote justice and safety; Tweets have alerted great numbers of people to danger – in the wake of terrorist attacks – and videos have provided evidence in court. But we have gradually started to document less serious behaviour with technology; trivial acts that might have been mitigated and dealt with privately are now spread out for the masses to feast on. Last month a woman was filmed dragging her child along a road in Liverpool, in a video that was widely shared and criticised; it later transpired he had autism, and the mother was struggling to cope. The damage has been done, and the woman’s reputation stained – now that we are so keen to spy on each other, rather than communicate directly.
All of this ultimately means that over time, the public will grow more and more wary of how they act out and about, in case they find themselves on film or social media. After all, who wants to have a chat on the train in these current circumstances, knowing someone might post about it later on Twitter? Or film it all?
Even the Pestminster scandal has made me think twice about who I want to email. That’s because, among the serious allegations, were also instances of women, like Kate Maltby, who broadcasted harmless messages with Damian Green for all to see. The Twitter communications of the journalist Rupert Myers were also widely distributed, as examples of his gross sexual misconduct. None of these scribblings ever came across as elucidating or damning, just the sort of thing many people send to each other every day. Was it fair to share? I don’t think so. Besides, I tend to believe there are unwritten rules when it comes to technological communication; namely, that you do not distribute it, unless it poses a serious danger.
It seems to me that we have never really lost that urge, since the Gladiator games, to cause people pain on a huge scale – albeit now through technology. We love to see the little man fall, perhaps because this deflects away from our own humanity – and faults. Now we do this through our camera phones.
I do still think that technology has an important role in protecting us all, if it is used to capture the worst of mankind’s behaviour. But there has to be some sort of balance; we should not live in a society where we can find our lives ruined because of what we say on public transport. That is more dangerous than any ‘love rat’.