James Delingpole

How Twitter almost destroyed me

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

Last year, my old sparring partner George Monbiot got himself into a spot of bother. ‘Why not stick the knife in on your blog?’ various people suggested. But I didn’t because George’s travails had nothing whatsoever to do with his wrongheaded political views (which I’m more than happy to attack at every turn). They had to do with a libel he’d repeated about someone on Twitter. About this, I refused to gloat.

This is not because I’m an incredibly decent, warm and caring person. Well, not just. It’s because, as a fellow Twitter user, I recognised a case of ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ Of course I felt terribly sorry for the poor fellow he’d libelled. But if the fault lay anywhere, I thought, it didn’t lie with George; rather it lay with the perpetually gaping maw of the gigantic elephant trap that is Twitter.

Twitter is a publishing medium more dangerous than any that has ever before existed. The problem is that it is once trivially ephemeral and hideously permanent. Whatever your state of mind, whether you’re drunk or sober, depressed or euphoric, it’s there waiting to capture your every thought from the moment you wake up to the moment you check your Twitter feed one last time before you go to sleep.

‘Shock me! Thrill me! Entertain me!’ Twitter pleads with you. And because it’s so easy and quick to do — only as long as it takes to type 140 characters and press the send button — you rarely pause to consider that your joke or retweet or throwaway one-liner might have any real consequences. After all it’s only Twitter.

Most of the time, it’s true, it is only Twitter. More often than not your remark gets ignored, either because it’s too dull or because there’s a more interesting story about a Twitter character called @Pontifex resigning or because it’s just one of those days when the fish aren’t biting.


Just occasionally, though, the opposite happens. You find, to your horror and astonishment, that a tweet which took you less than 15 seconds to write is in danger of destroying your life. No really. You might be a journalist, like me, who writes hundreds of thousands of words’ worth of considered, well-wrought, nuanced articles expressing precisely who you are and where you’re coming from. But as far as the mob is concerned, that makes not the blindest bit of difference. It’s on those 140 characters you’re being tried and condemned. You’re hateful. You’re a misogynist. You’re anti-disabled. You’re a racist. You’re a rapist. Or whatever. And there’s no room for wriggling, you said it, after all. It’s there: in black and white — and ‘favourited’ by various ill-wishers, just in case you try to erase it.

A Twitter storm can happen to anyone, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. The supremely well-loved Stephen Fry got caught in one once over some mild suggestion that maybe men and women have different sexual urges. A young accountant called Paul Chambers lost his job and landed a £1,000 fine for Tweeting what was patently a joke — read by, at most, 600 people — about blowing up his local airport. The Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore got torn apart by transsexual activists for some remarks which I’m quite sure, as she wrote them, she had absolutely no intention whatsoever of making viciously ‘transphobic’.

Last week it was my turn. I shan’t rehearse the painful and embarrassing details. If you’re prurient, you can look it up online, but it would be kinder if you didn’t. My tweet — a provocative attempt to draw attention to an article a friend had written — was ugly, ill-phrased, ungallant, tasteless. I’ve apologised; my apology was accepted; and I hope that that’s the end of it.

So why am I raking over the coals by writing about it here? Various reasons. First, though I think it shouldn’t be — it’s a hysterical out-of-control playground, not a worthwhile debating forum — Twitter is now taken very seriously by the commentating classes and is therefore, like it or not, a story. Second, as a warning to all those -Twitter users who’ve yet to appreciate the pitfalls of the medium: my friends (and enemies), be advised that it’s simply too risky to tweet anything you wouldn’t be prepared to see in print or hear quoted in a court of law.

Third, and most importantly, I write this as a cri de coeur. Last week I came the closest I’ve ever done to losing my livelihood, my reputation, my career, everything over fewer than 20 ill-chosen words in a medium recognised by almost everyone who uses it as trashy, throwaway, gratuitously provocative, ephemeral and not to be taken too seriously.

What has happened to our culture — especially where social media is concerned — that such a state of affairs is not merely possible, but increasingly common? We live in an era where a housing officer from Bolton was actually demoted for writing on Facebook that gay marriage was ‘an equality too far’. Where a Kent teenager was arrested, for God’s sake, for posting a picture of burning poppies on Remembrance Day.

Perhaps we should blame Tony Blair for starting it with his hate-crime laws, a sign that, from henceforward, wrong-thinking was to be treated almost on a par with wrong-doing. But maybe he was merely reflecting the popular will. Maybe we really have reached such a state of intellectual decadence, of weaponised victimhood, of licensed offence-taking, that tasteless metaphors, insensitive comments or hurtful jokes are now to be considered as great a personal invasion as physical assault.

In my own case I’ve been very lucky. I work for people who value free speech. But many others do not and I fear for their future. Orwell predicted this. It has come to pass.

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Show comments
  • Alan A
  • Meg

    My heart bleeds for you. I’d never heard of you before Suzanne Moore, but you’ve got a heck of a reputation now. You’re right. Must be Tony Blair’s fault.

    • Vindice

      “I’d never heard of you before…. but you’ve got a heck of a reputation now.”

      I think what riles me most within your unstructured little trickle of spite is its implicit conceit that until something comes to prominence in your little corner of the world, it is as nothing. Significance is presumably conferred by the gatekeepers of your information at the Guardian and other outlets of tiny-audienced right-thinking toss? Whatever collective judgement you judgemental collectivists confer then forms something’s objective reputation.

      You professional takers of offence are everything that is wrong with this country. You are going to destroy all freedom of thought and action. The process is well underway. You bien pensants are so convinced of being self-evidently right about everything that you don’t engage with the arguments of your opponents on anything. Instead as self-appointed guardians of good taste you slur your opponents with racism, sexism, every damned ‘ism. This country is on an inexorable descent towards fascism. Or as you might have it, a post-gender, post-racial, post-national, post-difference utopia.

      • retundario

        Great post (from Vindice)

      • Colonel Mustard

        Indeed. They are a religious cult and anyone who does not accept their faith and preach their gospel is a heretic or an infidel. As a minority they believe it is their right to behave as a majority and demand of all others. Really quite repulsive.

      • Wander

        ::sigh:: You say those words, but they do not mean what you think they mean.


    • http://twitter.com/WholeLottaSusie Sue Ward

      Either you don’t get out much, Meg, or you have strayed into the wrong bit of cyberspace. Either way yours was a rather silly and pointless contribution.

    • Wander

      Well done Meg! You’ve cemented in two lines what I wrote paragraphs about: the poor author here, terrified at having to account for his opinions in front of others – and then, the best part, the coup de grace! Other commenters here descending on you in the same manner that Mr. Delingpole bemoans others descending on him via Twitter! It’s an irony that while I’m sure wasn’t completely intended is delicious nonetheless. Well done, and excellent point. 🙂

  • http://twitter.com/ronanfitz22 Ronan

    This nonsense appeared in the magazine itself?

  • retundario

    “everything over fewer than 20 ill-chosen words in a medium recognised
    by almost everyone who uses it as trashy, throwaway, gratuitously
    provocative, ephemeral and not to be taken too seriously.
    What has happened to our culture — especially where social media is
    concerned — that such a state of affairs is not merely possible, but
    increasingly common?”

    If you had uttered those words to another in your profession in any public form in say the 1930s, for example, surely you would have been sacked straight away?

    All societies jealously guard some values through censorship, sexually vulgar comments against women have always been ill-regarded, no?

    I think this is a confused article – the point should be about which kind of comments and which subjects deserve to be guarded, and whether should have an effect on professional standing. I don’t really believe sexually aggressive comments to someone working in the same profession as you should be tolerated.

    • Carlotty1222

      They say self-awareness is a wonderful thing. You might try acquiring some. Because you have just proved James Delinpole’s point to perfection. Reading your somewhat laboured comment (did you really need that long a quote?) you show yourself up as part of the problem.

      You are just the kind of person Delingpole descibes, someone who uses Twitter to ferociously attack another user for the slightest of reasons. Your comment, like those attack dogs on Twitter, exhibits a nauseating self-righteousness coupled with a zero ability to allow people to be human. To have faults and, occasionally, make mistakes.
      No in your world it seems, one transgression should lead to instant oblivion for the perpetrator. It must be wonderful to be as absolutely perfect as you and feel qualified to judge others. Though such narcassium must be suffocating to be around for very long.

      • Marcus

        Well said. What an odious person. I bet he’s not so tough on people who mug grannys though. What is it with these people.

        Also, it was not rape joke. It was a comment that is used all the time between men. I would not even raise an eyebrow if it was used at my work.
        The fact that people are purposefully twisting it in to a ‘rape’ comment is dangerously disingenuous; not least to the serious subject of rape.
        The comment was distasteful and bawdy and should not be said to a women in a society that believes women should not be subjected to the same level of vulgarity as men. Ironically therefore a non-feminist society.

      • retundario

        I am not a PC fan at all, but JDellingpole said that whatsisname had so destroyed Suzanne Moore in argument that she was walking “bandy-legged”. If you published that comment about a woman in your profession publicly (i.e. on Twitter or in a newspaper or whatever) you would face sanction – that is NOT a new social standard enforced by the PC brigade. It would NOT have been acceptable to publish such comments in 1950, in fact JDellingpole would have been sacked. So you’re just wrong and have misunderstood the point I was making. And no, I am not judging from a moral high-ground, i am as sexist and racist as anyone else.

        • Wander

          How depressing. Trotting out PC – as usual – is an barrier for people who want nothing more than to willfully and openly be rude, arrogant, ignorant, and hurtful in their speech. When called out, corrected, or marginalized for the consequences of their words, these people erect this barrier between them and the rest of society in order to insulate themselves and claim the problem is with others – all of them, clearly the issue can’t be what they said, clearly they can’t be wrong – it must be this blight called “political correctness” that’s forcing people to think and behave a certain way. “It can’t possibly be right-headedness, politeness, kindness, courteousness, justice, or fairness. It has to be something else, right? The problem can’t possibly be with me, the speaker, can it?”

      • Wander

        Ah, and yet – you are the type of person who uses comment sections on blogs to mercilessly attack others in the same manner?

        Come now. You cannot have it both ways. One person cannot state their opinion and somehow be excused from the reaction and dislike of the unwashed masses, as it were, while you do the same and expect to stand uncorrected. Or is that exactly what you’re looking for exactly?

  • Mike Barnes

    Looked on twitter, I’ve still got no idea what you’re talking about.

  • Ruben

    I’m sorry, but are you really complaining about the twitter mob targeting you, after you (a man) targeted somebody else (a woman writer no less) on twitter (with sexual aggression)? Is it that you don’t think you’re part of a mob?

    • Wander

      Indeed. He is complaining that, when kicked in the face repeatedly, those in the line of fire dare to stand up and complain, loudly and collectively, about his actions and his speech. Rather than contemplate his speech and the consequences of his actions when confronted with a mass of others willing to decry them, he’s happier wrapping up in a blanket of self-affection and posting in a place of insular sycophantic opinion and claiming that obviously the problem must be with those “other” people – not him! Those “other” people and their wrong opinions, and their use of their own voices on an even playing field to shout back at him – how dare they!

  • Ruben

    “In my own case I’ve been very lucky. I work for people who value free speech”

    And yet look at your magazine and this website. Have you noticed what the so-called free speech policy is achieving? Have you noticed who’s speech dominates and who’s is almost entirely missing?

    I have a feeling that social media is dominated by angry women because all the other channels have been sewn up by others.

    And I can’t help feeling that they’re simply giving the men’s mob a taste of their own ancient medicine. One brush with it and you’re crying foul by the looks of things.

    • Wander

      Very well put.

  • creeper

    Which is why I don’t do social media and never will.

    • http://foomandoonian.net/ Foomandoonian

      Sure. Unless you count leaving thousands of comments on various blogs as a ‘social’ use of ‘media’.

  • http://foomandoonian.net/ Foomandoonian

    There’s a good point to be made about Twitter’s ‘digi-mobs’, but I have no sympathy when these points are made by a professional troll. Delingpole is like a bully who when he steps over the line, whines ‘But it was just a joke. Don’t you have a sense of humour?’

    • Wander

      Agreed, through and through. Well put.

  • Wander

    Ah, it’s always refreshing to watch as someone who’s so used to their voice being heard without question, who’s used to being able to use that oh-so-structured conversation where the unwashed with their opinions and their ability to group together and dissent collectively, who’s so used to being able to stand above others and shout their opinions from on high without worry about the consequences of their speech, both on themselves and others, rightfully dragged down onto the same level as those they’re speaking with. With all apologies to Mr. Delingpole for his body of work and his approach to this – but this comes with the territory of bothering to speak with the people you choose to write to.

    This entire diatribe reads beautifully from top to near the end – like someone beginning to examine themselves and their statements, and to understand that “hey, maybe, for a moment, the problem isn’t with *everyone else,* it’s with what I’m saying. Maybe when a thousand people call me out on the rug for being inappropriate, perhaps it’s me being inappropriate and not just them being uncultured, terrible peasants who dare to disagree with me because they’re stupid/ignorant/another political opinion/another gender/another race/another perspective on life/brought up differently and I despise them for it.”

    The entire read is a combination of powerful and intelligent self-awareness of the dangers of social media…and then summarily the slamming of the people on social media for expressing their opinion as rebuttal when Mr. Delingpole dares to express his. It seems that so many people so worried about the rebuttal of the masses, as it were, are more concerned with losing whatever shield they have left to be able to say terrible, thoughtless, hurtful and hateful things without fear of reprisal from people who also, thanks to the internet and thanks to social media, have their own voices that can ring just as loud. It must be painful to come to that realization.

    And then, of course, it all flies off the track with a final paragraph that again cements the opinions of the privileged: “No wait, the problem is with other people and their blasted *thought control,* by which I really mean those abrasive norms and mores that have existed in civil society for generations but stop me from willingly being a jerk to everyone around me in the name of ‘stating my opinion.'” It reads like a blind man trying so desperately to find the light, getting ever so close, and then deciding at the end, “nah, I’m happier in the dark” and proceeds to blame everyone else for turning on the switch. Incredible read, really.

  • http://twitter.com/Slickepelle Jonas

    What did Mr Delingpole tweet then? This story makes one curious.

  • IslingtonBlue

    yeah, I read that tweet, you got caught in the shit storm that is twitter morals. You can email and text jokes that you can’t say on twitter because it’s a public forum.
    note the distinct lack of jokes on twitter about Pistorius yet anyone who’s been to work in the private sector has probably seen sight of at least one ‘hilarious’ joke about the incident.
    better luck next time, just avoid anything remotely sexist or racist, when I say remotely, I mean remotely. Suggesting someone’s article and them in turn has been rogered so hard they now walk bandy legged is a NO GO.

  • http://twitter.com/AbbeyLane5 Abbey Lane

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzz zzzzz

  • chris holmes

    agree with Wander. always feared Twitter, from instinct or experience. thank goodness im too busy wittering on at length on facebook or blog to have taken to twitter. i am exhibit A for the type to bite the learnèd counsel dust.

  • http://twitter.com/alokpi Alok Prasanna Kumar

    Actually, it wasn’t Orwell but Ray Bradbury who predicted this more accurately in Farenheit 451.

    It has moved far ahead here in India where every group, sub-group and practically individual has claimed a right to take offence against speech of any sort, truth or otherwise. More distressingly this right to take offence has been read to mean right to act violently without consequences (including of course abusing online). The Government (Central and State) do little more than shrug and take the side of whoever is louder, more numerous and prone to violence in such matters. That is if they can be bothered to do anything at all about it.

    Virtually every movie which deals with a sensitive topic, a famous person or an identifiable group is almost immediately banned by a State Government without even the movie having been watched by the people banning it. This is done irrespective of whether the Censor Board has lawfully and legitimately cleared the movie.

    What passes for “entertainment” in such an environment has also been well described by Bradbury (more than Orwell) – identically bland soaps, reality shows and comedies where no thought or thinking is permitted, and all intellectual and artistic nuance is forbidden.

  • http://www.facebook.com/farah.damji Farah Damji

    Delingpoo. Aren’t you dead yet poppet?