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  • Katie Arnold

Online Dehumanisation: Trial by Social Media

Updated: Feb 15


It has happened again. The feeling of being on a ride that just plummets without any warning. My stomach has lurched, my heart rate has shot through the roof and my airways have constricted. My hands have started their shaking, my mind is racing and it won’t slow down. I have gone stone cold. There is no way of warming up unless I run a bath or get under the duvet until everything stops. But I can’t always do that – I have two children saying “Mum I don’t understand this bit of homework” or “What’s for tea?”. It is affecting my family; I need to get a handle on this. So, I try and pretend to the kids I am ok, muddle through and then find a quiet place to sit and process. I need to process what I have just been told or seen pop up on my phone. I hate the sight of my phone. It is where all the bad news comes from. It comes at all sorts of times, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. And it hurts. It really, really hurts. Confusion, shock, fear, and embarrassment. The embarrassment is the worst of them all. I don’t want to do this anymore and I want it to stop. I want to walk away and enjoy my life like I used to. I want to run again and not have these people impacting my life like this. I want to clear my name and explain what has happened in a calm and transparent way so that the comments and messages stop. But nobody wants to listen. They want to shout, and form groups and I am absolutely petrified.'

More than 2 million people in the UK run, and the health benefits – both physical and mental – are one of the reasons that its popularity is on the increase. For me personally, it is my lifeline. It is what lets me function and escape the demons which still reside in me from a youth spent living with an eating disorder. I have always enjoyed sport, but for me running just hits the spot. It never bores me. I can run alone, no music, no company, in the driving rain and I still find myself smiling. There is a euphoria from it (there is also a lot of pain but the dopamine hit you get once you have finished makes you gloss over that!). I began my career being thrown into the deep end of a bonkers recruitment company with the strangest group of personalities you could ever think to put into one room. We had one PC in the corner (no broadband, it was on dial up and it was 50/50 if it would connect). This was in 2002 when the online world was just beginning to form, and I set to work creating administration and IT systems that would bring the company into the new age of technology. I then moved to Melbourne, Australia at 22 and did the same there. I love creating systems and watching them grow. I get satisfaction seeing people benefitting from something I have created and knowing I have made a positive difference. It has taken me many years to be able to have the confidence to say this– but I am pretty good at it. When I was approached by the Chairman of the athletics club which I was a member of and asked to take over as Secretary in 2018, I knew it was something I could do. It was a bit of me. I loved the Club and the brilliant bunch of people in it. I felt so proud that he believed I could do it. So, I gave it everything alongside running the IT and social media. I had no idea just how big a job this would be. It was overwhelming. It was a blank canvass in many ways so I set to work determined to act with transparency and as I would if someone was paying me £50k a year. I created a website, policies and procedures and worked to make sure that we were operating safely and in line with our legal and affiliation requirements. Nobody actually took much notice what went on behind the scenes, until the day the Chairman resigned with immediate effect. All of a sudden, everyone who had happily left me trying to get a handle on the admin for the Club became an expert and pressure was placed on me to act against the rules – with the aim of intimidating another individual out of the club. All of a sudden, the tone changed and it became a very volatile situation with abusive comments about the particular individual being made. I spoke to the person in question, who told me he had seen a comment posted on Facebook by someone who he had never spoken to before describe him as a “toad”. I became more and more distressed as I could see first hand that people were not acting on the cold hard facts of the situation – they were just reading or listening to second, third, fourth hand information. So, to try and ensure that the situation was not inflamed any further, the Committee I was part of followed the set of rules our Club is founded on and refused to be intimidated to act with any bias. And that was my crime in the eyes of an angry few.


In 2017/18, 22% of people took part in formal volunteering at least once a month in the UK. You hear it said that volunteering is rewarding and is even attributed to a longer life. While this may be true, it also comes with its disadvantages which I am now discovering. You have no protection – if what was happening to me now happened in the workplace, HR would get involved. A process would be followed and the situation would be dealt with to get to the bottom of things calmly. I would be allowed to speak. I would be given time to consider my response. But that is not happening here. The only policies and procedures we have in place are the ones I have put together, and nobody is taking a blind bit of notice to them. They want meetings called that are unregulated, where people shout, accuse and rely on numbers to dominate. They have seen so many things written on Facebook and are angry. If it is written on Facebook it must be true? So, they get involved. They join the mob. They absorb the anger; they recite what they have read or been told and repost it again. They form groups where they make inflammatory comments about individuals and hold a meeting in a pub where they shout and make even more accusations about me. I am on trial – and it is all being played out publicly on social media. Social media is changing how we as a society behave. People say ‘hi’ to my face, talk to my children and then go home and fire up the keyboard and slate me. My mobile number is listed on the club website - which I spent countless hours building in my spare time. But people do not want to talk and work things out for some reason. They want to post comments and see someone get shot down in flames.


As human beings, we are innately social animals and we want to be accepted by the group. Here we can find friendship and security, and being a part of a group can be very positive and enriching. The problem comes when the group encounters the lone wolf. That is when we see the less positive side of the group when that one soul on their own, acting in a different way is seen as a threat or a risk to the security of the pack. This is where the dehumanisation starts. Why? Because it is easier to accept that they are acting in the best interests of the group, and doing the right thing. There is no place for guilt here, this is now about survival. In 2020, we see their conviction that they are doing the right thing being endorsed when other group members ‘like’ their comments and agree with them. Now they have worked themselves into such a frenetic state that they want blood, and don’t see the human behind the profile who is breaking. Interestingly enough, some of these individuals are the first to share “mental health awareness week” posts and tell the world that suicide prevention is something we should talk about more openly. But this soon gets forgotten when the comments start racking up. Those little “typing” bubbles are flowing and everyone is on a roll. Quite often the people writing these inflammatory comments are nice people. Good people. But they are operating with pack – or “mob mentality”. History and psychology show that given the right circumstances, only a quarter of people have the fortitude to stand up and say “I’m not going to participate in this.”


As stated in the article ‘Mob Mentality in the Digital Age’: “Even when they are eventually proven right, the mob doesn’t capitulate and concede that they were wrong. The mob’s hate for the small group only grows; they are often despised even more because they proved everyone else wrong”. Why does this happen? It is evolutionary and your prefrontal cortex is to blame. You will have encountered your prefrontal cortex if you are a runner or do any endurance sport – that’s the voice screaming at you to stop mid-way through a race and telling you that your legs / arms will drop off at any minute. Back in the days when you would wake up and quite possibly have a Sabre Tooth Tiger chasing you, listening to your prefrontal friend would have been advised. However, we know we will not be running a flat out 5k again tomorrow, so we can afford to ignore it’s screaming. Prefrontal cortex is a worrier and wants to keep you safe - and to do that it has to act impulsively on survival instincts. So quite often we find that this animalistic need to follow the pack leaves us at odds with our moral compass.



So, what can you do when you find yourself at the centre of a social media witch hunt? Not much unfortunately. You just have to ride it out. When it gets too much, and you want everything to end talk to those you love and trust. Cry. Delete people from your social media accounts to give yourself the space you need. Follow accounts that give advice about how to cope with cyberbullying - even as an adult. The Cyber Smile Foundation has been invaluable to me. They give really good advice about how to cope and also to understand what is happening to you and why. Set boundaries. Hope that in time, people will understand that not everyone thinks the same. Not everyone responds the same. Social media makes us demand an instant response, and it is acting impulsively which leads to many problems. The thing I have struggled with the most is keeping a record of what has been said. I can’t bring myself to look at it as it brings all the feelings I describe above back. But do keep a record – email copies to someone you trust to keep and then delete them off your phone. As hard as it is when you want to clear your name, don’t respond. Type what you want to say, and save it in your notes. Then leave it a few hours. Most often when I do this, I find that actually after some thought that waiting and having a chat with the person first is the best option. Sometimes I realise that it actually does not even need to be said at all. What has been really useful is writing about my experience. It has been very therapuetic and has helped me to process the whole experience.



Words can hurt more than a knife. Think about how the other person reading what you have posted online might feel. Put yourself in their shoes and try and see things from their perspective. Just because someone does not agree with you, it doesn’t make them your enemy. So, the next time you see a post online where people are having a go at someone, please do not join in. It may seem harmless to you and you may feel that that you are simply expressing your opinion, but you don’t know what the person on the receiving end may have been through. What you see as just your one comment is often not that for the target – it is one of many from a whole group of angry people and trust me it is intimidating. The stuff of nightmares. If two people stand in a bar and have a conversation where they express their views on something, it starts and ends there. When two people do it on social media everyone can see – and those words can be screenshotted and spread for years to come. For me, knowing this was the worst part. I was told by a friend that she was approached and asked who this awful Katie person was, and they had to set her straight. People’s reputations are being dragged through the mud every second around the world, and nobody is doing enough to stop this. Unfortunately, until we can learn as a society that ‘trial by social media’ is the cause of so many suicides, things will not get better. Please explain this to your children. Ask them how they would feel if someone posted hurtful things about them, or someone they loved. Let us teach our children to be compassionate and that much forgotten gift of empathy.


I hope that by sharing my experience, it may be a help to others who are going through the same. Stay strong and know that you are not alone. Brighter days are just around the corner, and there waiting is an even stronger version of yourself ready to take your hand.



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