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Tracey O’Mahony: I was a social media virgin who asked the wrong question

On Saturday, 17 August last, I came across a Tweet from an Owen James in the UK which referred to a “blatant premeditated attack” by far-right activists, in which Mr. James alleged he was seriously assaulted. I do not know Mr. James so I cannot comment on whether this claim is true or not. However, this Tweet was shared by an account called Mac’s Pack with the comment “this is real, this is happening in Ireland right now, scary, frightening and a very real threat”. Now, I am very new to social media – I only set up an account on Facebook and Twitter in July 2019, however, I listen to the news every day and read newspapers most days, so when I heard this claim I wanted to find out more.

My immediate reaction when I am unsure of something is to ask a question – the purpose of which is generally information-gathering, rather than trying to stir trouble. So, I responded to Mac’s Pack and said, “Mac please direct me to the objective evidence and statistics that “this” meaning premeditated serious assault by right wing extremists is taking place in Ireland”.

As I said earlier, I am new to social media, and I’ve avoided it until recently because I despise mobile phones and reminisce about a time when you made plans to meet a friend on a certain date, at a certain time, at a certain place and you both showed up without needing to send 15 texts, a couple of gifs and finally a WhatsApp call to confirm their exact coordinates.

(I also really do not care what anyone had for breakfast and no one thinks your kids, dogs or cats are as fluffy and cute as you do.)Over the past 4 years, my family and friends told me what was happening around the world with free speech, though when they tried to explain the seriousness of what was happening with censorship of speech my reply was always the same: “No one will stop me saying what I want to say”. I didn’t know how hard they would try.

So, when I asked my genuine question, it was in the context of sitting in a social media ignorance bubble for the last 10 years. I had heard of snowflakes, however, and I didn’t think I fitted that description.

My parents separated when I was a child and in 1980’s Ireland, growing up in a one-parent household was considered socially disgraceful and as a child you felt that in everything you did.

My brother and I spent most of our childhood and teenage years with our grandparents who were the primary influences on our lives; they taught us that independence, education and individual thought were not accomplishments in life but necessities. This was our starting point.

While it was hard at the time, I am now glad for the poverty we grew up in. We went to school with holes in our shoes, we did not have enough food, we could seldom afford schoolbooks and we worried that the roof over our heads was temporary. As a child, I always remember my mother working hard, unemployment was not an option in our family, both from a financial but also from a human-worth perspective, neither did we secure any form of social welfare assistance. As soon as I could work, I did. I got my first job working in a B&B at age 13 earning £1.50 an hour. This early and necessary introduction to the work force instilled in me a resilient work ethic.

My grandparents lived in a nice middle-class area in Galway called Renmore, whereas my mother lived in a neglected anti-social council estate called Castle Park. I believe having access to both sides of the track gave me an insight into how things could be if I worked hard, or how things would be if I did not. As a child in Renmore, I spent my time playing on swings and roundabouts, or gardening with my grandfather; whereas in Castle Park I spent my time intervening in fights between bullies and those who could not fight back, often ending up with injuries myself. I was taught not to be a bystander, and I also have  a severe aversion to bullying of any sort

After the Leaving Certificate I applied to participate in the Access Course in N.U.I.G. The Access Course was open to individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds as a ‘back door’ into university. I progressed through a B.A. Degree, a Bachelor of Laws Degree in 2006 and then to the King’s Inn to complete my Barrister-at-Law Degree.

My brother entered politics in 2018, and I watched from the sidelines interested but not interested enough to make the leap myself. The reason for my lack of interest however, was less to do with indifference, and more to do with ignorance of what was going on in the world and of course our little corner of the world, Ireland. Then in May 2019, as I helped my brother canvass for local elections in Galway, I started to become a little less ignorant of the changes happening to Ireland and the world.

So, I made the decision in July 2019 to set up a Facebook and Twitter account, with the intention of using this as a platform to express my opinions.

By the time I asked my question on 17 August 2019, I was on social media for approximately 4 weeks.

I received a response from an account called “Gemmented O’Dotty” with the comment “the ‘this’ is the alt right and first indications of the seeds of stochastic terrorism, egged on by Gammy, the Tan, Justin Barrett and a host of other rhetoric spewing mouthpieces of the #AltShite.”

Now to prove just how virgin I was to our new world, I had to look up what “stochastic terrorism” was, who Justin Barrett was, and I still do not know who the Tan is. Clearly, I am not someone working in concert with others, but it had obviously eluded this person that I might be asking a valid question. Without even thinking, but assuming it would resolve any discrepancy, I responded by saying “You are incorrect, “this” being referred to was “celebrating my birthday I was attacked, along with my friends, in a blatant premeditated assault”. Hence my request for evidence of similar alleged assaults in Ireland to which no corroborating evidence has been produced”.

I consider myself to be a rational, logical person who asks a question when they do not know the answer and asks for proof when a claim is asserted. In my mind (and in my social media ignorance bubble) this did not seem like an unreasonable request considering this was how I had operated in my personal and work life up to this point.

I was very wrong, and this is where I got my shotgun introduction to censorship and the extreme intolerance of opposing views in liberal Ireland.

The tweets persisted as follows:

Gemmented O’Dotty: “Sure Tracey, you construct that wall out of the ether and I’ll climb it. We both know what he way saying. We both know he’s pointing at an incident and highlighting the conditions leading up to it, which are being mirrored here. But you work away sweetie”.

Now, I am not a sensitive person, I have in fact been told by quite a few people close to me over the years that I have no discernible emotions but when this person called me “sweetie”, I knew they were trying to bait me and I actually found it funny. Funny because using a term like “sweetie” towards someone who sits on the left would amount to sexism, misogyny and many other obia’s and ism’s but the rest of us find this silly or amusing. So, my answer, in all its childish glory was “Thanks for your permission. I shall work away (loads of laughing emojis)”. Mature response? Of course not.

Gemmented O’Dotty replied: “Well, up to the point where some of those more extreme views you’re pushing cost you your job. Then you can join Gemma on her racist street corner du jour”.

My response: “You are talking to the wrong person if you think that scares me, I grew up dirt poor, so if I end up with nothing again it will be worth it to secure my freedoms, so take your best shot. I am in this for the long run”.

Gemmented O’Dotty: “To secure your freedoms? What freedoms do you feel you are bereft of?”

My response: “I am all for debate, but once you take matters to a point where you are exhibiting threatening behavior I no longer engage, so tweet all you want, this is the last reply you will get from me”.

Gemmented O’Dotty: “I’m exhibiting am I, Cant [sic] take opinions you don’t agree with. Ah good luck so you poor righty snowflake”

My response: The freedom being referred to was freedom of speech/expression. When I ask for evidence of assaults being committed by those on the right, I am told my extremist views will cost me my job, that equals shut your mouth”

Gemmented O’ Dotty: “I’d recommend [email protected] (my employers name) take a look at some of your extremist views. They really are quite worrying. Some of the people you’ve brought out of the woodwork seem quite openly racist and bigoted”

My response: “I will stand over any comment I have made and as I said previously there is no job worth giving up my freedom to speak , so if you think contacting my job will have the desired effect, you are wrong”

After I would no longer engage, Gemmented O’ Dotty tweeted this to my employer:

“(name of my employer) should really look into the online activity of their right-wing apologist Barrister-at-Law and her self-professed “extremist views”. She’ll stand over them, free speech and all that. HR will enjoy her veiled views on diversity and Europe as well as the company she keeps”

I honestly did not expect any of the above to happen simply because I asked for evidence to substantiate a claim made. I expect you wonder how I could have been so naive?

It is probably not every day that you will come across someone as social media virgin as me, so perhaps listening to how my mind works (at least now) is like looking back in time. I grew up and was educated in a time when if someone made an assertion, you asked for proof. In my logical brain, my question was not controversial, but times have changed. Any question is suspect, all divergence is evidence of guilt of a crime against twitter-approved thought.

Clearly, the person who contacted my job – and obviously hoped to get me fired – believes that success amounts to bullying people until they desist from expressing views or asking questions.

People who sit behind a keyboard and threaten the livelihoods of others because they do not agree with questions being asked sometimes produce consequences they might not anticipate.

I started to consider the type of responses others might display to having their speech censored and I came up with the following list:

a)    The recipient goes quiet and does not engage any further, realizing that their job is more important than social media engagement;

b)    The recipient tells the other party where to go and carries on as normal;

c)    The recipient sits back and thinks about their life, freedom, consequences and where they might be in 10, 20, 30 years if they do not make a conscious decision to engage in this fight;

d)    The recipient goes underground, and their views become extreme over time.

I fall into category C as I expect do many others who are tired of the transparent bullying tactics on display.

We are told “Don’t poke the bear” to which increasing numbers are responding: “Don’t wake the lion”.


Tracey O’Mahony lives and writes in Galway   

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