‘Sometimes a police state is a good thing’
The Twitterati’s unhinged hounding of ‘racist tram lady’ confirms how intolerant the tweeting herd can be.
‘Ok so this women’s been arrest[ed]. I guess my video was a success. This has caused quite a bit of hype.’
So tweeted Kelly Hollingsworth, who used her mobile phone to record a now infamous video of a woman in her thirties, with a toddler on her lap, shouting racist abuse at fellow passengers on a packed tram in Croydon, London. Hollingsworth posted the video on YouTube on Sunday and, within 24 hours, it had notched up over 100,000 views. Before long, a Twitter hashtag #MyTramExperience (based on the title of the video) was trending all over the UK. Dozens of people tweeted the video to the British Transport Police (BTP) and assisted them with their hunt for the mysterious woman. Within hours of the tweeting frenzy, the BTP announced that they had arrested a 34-year-old ‘on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offence’; she has now been charged and the YouTube video has been viewed almost 2.2million times.
Welcome to a twenty-first-century Twitch Hunt. That term, coined in 2009 by spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, sums up this Orwellian modern phenomenon, where a mob of illiberal liberals on Twitter work with the authorities to silence those who dare to utter words that offend their sensibilities. This was the case with Daily Mail writer Jan Moir following her comments about the late Boyzone star Stephen Gately, and it happened again with celebrity controversialist, Kenneth Tong, who wrote pro-anorexia tweets. The horrible racist comments made by ‘tram lady’ – police have charged a woman called Emma West in relation to the incident – are, of course, of a different order to what Moir and Tong did and said, yet this woman has similarly experienced the wrath of the Twittermob.
No one would argue that tram lady’s comments were excusable. She was rightly condemned and challenged by her fellow travellers. Indeed, in many ways the video of this incident offered an excellent example of how these kinds of tense situations can be resolved informally. Disproving the Twitterati’s claim that the tram incident shows that racism is still rife today, in fact many of the passengers – both black and white – challenged the foul-mouthed shouter.
That wasn’t enough for the Twittermob, however, who wanted a piece of the action. They instantly expressed their moral fury, passing judgement without pausing for thought. Almost immediately upon seeing the video, people were tweeting it to the cops and naming the potential culprit and the place where she apparently works. Even Labour Party leader Ed Miliband joined in, asking followers to help ‘identify the woman shouting racist abuse on a tram in London’. Following the arrest of a suspect, tweeters showered the transport police with praise. ‘Sometimes a police state can be used for the powers of good. Well done, @btp_uk!’, said one tweet. ‘That’s social media at work for you, an arrest in the afternoon of the video hitting the TT in Twitter!’, said another.
Other tweeters called on the police to ‘lock her up and throw away the key’ and ‘save her child’. Literally hundreds of people, with no indication that they were joking, tweeted that the woman should be sterilised, deported, punched, kicked and shot. Some suggested she should be shot between the eyes, others that she should be shot in her ovaries. Other Twitterers expressed a preference for hanging her or said she should be ‘put down’ like a dog. Fittingly for Twitch Hunters, there were also demands that she be drowned or burnt at the stake.
Rising above all this unhinged online fury, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the kind of racism exhibited by racist tram lady is remarkably rare in twenty-first-century Britain. Far from being representative of the Daily Mail outlook or of ‘Broken Britain’, as many tweeters claimed, the reason the video is shocking is because such openly racist speech is, thankfully, a very odd thing these days. As one person tweeted, ‘Wowww hard to believe people like her still exist in Britain today’.
According to rumours in the Croydon area, the woman in question was ‘going through a breakdown’ when the footage was filmed. She certainly appears unwell, or at least drunk, in the video. But that won’t stop the Twittermob from letting rip; they never let anything as insignificant as facts or context get in the way of their mass screech for the hanging, drawing and quartering of a witch. At a time when moral certainties are few and far between, the useful thing about Twitch Hunts is that they provide people with a moment of extreme moralistic clarity, where they can gang together and demonstrate their ‘liberal’ credentials by tweeting: ‘I HATE HER.’
For all the sound and the fury generated by this video, this remains simply an isolated case of a possibly unstable woman shouting out obnoxious comments. One Twitterer tweeted at Kelly Hollingsworth, the woman who recorded the video, ‘If I was on that tram with that racist woman, I’d have thrown her off the tram while in motion, then fostered her child’. Hollingsworth responded: ‘LOL we all could see she weren’t worth it.’ If only the rest of Twitter had adopted that kind of response.
Rather than showing that ‘racism in Britain is as rife as ever’, as one person tweeted, the #MyTramExperience Twitch Hunt actually reveals the rise of a different backward trend: the tendency for herds of intolerant Twitterers to act like coppers’ narks, to make a massive deal out of their own shallow moralistic indignation, and to be utterly contemptuous of the idea that the public is more than capable of dealing with isolated incidents of racist abuse when they arise. The hounding of this woman was not a great act of anti-racist activism – it was the virtual equivalent of children chasing the local crazy lady through the streets and shouting ‘Nutter!’ or ‘Cow!’.