The media may be new, but the punitive messages and appetites remain the same. Today's tech simply provides new outlets for the worst behaviour.
Although the west's appetite for witch-hunting has long been sated, the urge to persecute has not, which explains why the idea remains so useful. Politicians and celebrities and journalists use the term “witch-hunt” all the time. In March this year the blogger Craig Charles Haley described “social media witch-hunts” as “witch-hunts on steroids”. Accusations go viral, globally, within hours, and “instead of having dozens of angry voices baying for your blood”, writes Haley, “you have tens of thousands”. Typically the accusers are cowardly, ignorant, offensive and openly misogynistic. When the historian Mary Beard appeared on BBC's Question Time, she received torrents of abuse from internet trolls, less about what she had said than about how she looks.
In the victimisation of public figures like Beard, we instantly recognise the witch-hunting paradigm: a mob pointing at an older woman, exposed in public and outspoken. But what, historically, are we referring to? Haley assumes we know. A witch-hunt was “the search for those people – usually solitary women – suspected of witchcraft, guided by panic, misinformation and misunderstanding”. Without pretence to a fair hearing, “communities would execute their suspects” on the thinnest proof.
Yet much of what we know, from folklore and fiction, is wrong. Robert Eggers' horror movie, The Witch, set in New England in 1630, examines a family in the wilderness, afraid of what lurks in the woods. Eggers gives us a real witch, fleetingly glimpsed yet malevolently near. However, most real suspected witches were not isolated figures hounded by their communities. They were integrated and proximate, and all the more scary for that. Accusations involved personal relationships and intense emotions rather than random scapegoating. [...]
And how do things look today? Misogyny thrives. A recently published study by the thinktank Demos revealed that in one three-week period in the UK, the words “slut” and “whore” had been directed at 6,500 unique Twitter users in 10,000 tweets. It's striking that half these cyber-bullies were women. This is alarming, but we shouldn't confuse new media with old messages. Most lawsuits for defamation, hidden in the archives, involve sexual slander using words like “whore” and “witch”, and often both plaintiff and defendant were female. The big difference is that these enemies knew each other.
Perhaps we shouldn't linger too long on the perpetrators. What about the victims? In some witch-hunts every suspect was a woman, and overall the proportion was 80%. The Bible taught that women were “the weaker vessel”, and therefore more vulnerable to diabolic temptation. Physicians saw female bodies as leaky, corrupt, rebellious.
And just as then so, too, are most victims of cyber-bullying female. Perhaps, as with so many prejudices we think we've abandoned, some of this is hardwired into us. According to Alex Krasodomski-Jones, a researcher at Demos, the digital age creates “new battlegrounds of the worst aspects of human behaviour”. But it's this human essence that should worry us, as much as the means by which it's manifested.
“Social media witch-hunts are no different to the old kind – just bigger”,
Malcolm Gaskill, Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2016.