Defamatory tweets, dangerous dares, online bigotry reveal the darker side of cyberspace
WHEN ONE BRAND GOT EMBROILED IN POLITICS
It is every brand's worst nightmare. On Thursday morning, the official Twitter account of McDonald's "launched" an attack on United States President Donald Trump.
A tweet sent out at 9.16am (9.16pm Singapore time) read: "You are actually a disgusting excuse of a President and we would love to have Barack Obama back, also you have tiny hands."
Not only was the tweet sent out, where it sat unnoticed for a while, it was also pinned to the top of the fast-food giant's Twitter page.
It collected hundreds of retweets in less than an hour.
Trump supporters condemned the attack, although many users who dislike Mr Trump praised McDonald's gumption in attacking the President.
McDonald's quickly deleted the offending tweet and issued a statement more than 12 hours later, but it had already been widely reported by many news sites.
It said: "Twitter notified us that our account was compromised. We deleted the tweet, secured our account and are now investigating this."
In a second statement, the fast-food company said that its Twitter account was "hacked by an external source" and that "swift action" had been taken to secure it.
Not everyone, however, believed McDonald's was entirely innocent.
One user said: "Why does 'We were hacked' sound like the 21st century 'The dog ate my homework'?"
Another user tweeted: "Put the tweet back up and I'll buy 200 nuggets."
THE ERASER CHALLENGE
As far as challenges go, this is as strange and silly as it gets.
It is dubbed the Eraser Challenge and, while it has been around for a year or so, it has been gaining popularity in recent weeks.
Participants, mostly middle- school children, in this latest dare, rub the skin on their arms with an... eraser. While doing so, these kids also recite the alphabet and come up with a word for each letter. Once they reach the last letter (Z), the participants stop and compare their burns with those made by their peers. The "winner" is the teen with the biggest wound.
KIDS WITH SWAGGER: Dr Robert Kelly, a political science professor, found his family at the centre of a viral phenomenon when his children barged into his room while he was being interviewed by the BBC on the South Korea impeachment scandal. His daughter, four-year-old Marion Kelly, has since become the latest social media darling for her antics.
IT SHOW: The latest iteration of the popular electronics fair has been one of the top search trends on Google, with many netizens sharing online the good deals they had managed to land.
PI DAY: March 14 is known as Pi Day, where people take the time to remember the important number that calculates the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. #PiDay was a top Twitter hashtag.
There have been serious consequences.
Last week, US media reported that a 13-year-old had contracted a toxic shock response, most likely from the germs on the dirty eraser he had used, and is now fighting for his life.
Experts have come out to condemn the act.
Dr Angela Mattke, from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, said that there is an increased risk of skin infections any time the skin barrier is broken down. "Burns, whether from heat or chemicals, result in a break of the natural skin barrier. The skin barrier's job is to keep bad things out, like potential infection-causing bacteria (that live on the skin normally)," she added.
What drives bigotry on social media? A short 20-minute documentary produced by Norwegian director Kyrre Lien, and posted on the Guardian's Facebook page, attempted to delve deeper into the topic.
The premise was simple: Identify the so-called "Internet warriors" and do short interviews with them in their own homes.The aim was to find out if these users "are as angry in person as they are online".
Mr Lien met a group of strongly opinionated individuals, who spend their time debating online on the subjects they care about.
The results are startling and disturbing. Here is a sampling of what was being said.
One user, who goes by the name of Robert, felt strongly about the attempts by migrants to cross the Channel from France into England.
The ensuing migration has caused delays and disruptions to train services, and social unrest.
Robert's tweet was short, sharp and filled with hate. "Just run (them) over," he said.
In justifying his actions, Robert said Europe has two problems.
The first is that Brussels should be removed from the European Union, while the second centred on the migrants.
Viewers are also privy to why Robert might feel so strongly about the situation.
His wife is from another country. It is not revealed where she is from, but she looks decidedly Asian.
Robert said that he went through all the correct channels in bringing his wife over, an endeavour that costs him almost $7,000 each time. His wife is allowed to stay for only six months at a time, after which Robert has to repeat the cycle to bring her back again.
Robert is evidently angry at the difference between going through the proper channels and the free pass some migrants get, to enter England.
Another user, who goes by the name of Roger, has a strong belief in racial purity. In his social media posting, he said: "Sending children of different races to the same school is a form of eugenics, encouraging them to mix and later intermarry."
He proudly proclaimed that "diversity is not something to celebrate, unless you want to celebrate your own ethnic decline and demise".
Roger also wrote a blog post defending Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, who murdered more than 70 people in the name of preserving European culture. "I sympathise a lot with his motivations. I feel the same betrayal by my government. They betrayed us to mass immigration and diversity," Roger said.
Other subjects who were featured tackled issues like LGBT rights and anti-Muslim sentiments.
What stood out in all the interviews is how "normal" many of these commenters are, aside from their extreme views, which they express only on social media.
"Sometimes, it gets me into arguments, but it's not something I care about, because at the end of the day you are just someone behind a computer screen. It's not really going to affect me much," said user Illusory, who has sent out more than 170,000 tweets.
The short documentary also successfully illustrates a facet of such extreme views that might not be evident on the outset.
In the heat of the moment, social media users might have very strong views on certain issues, but that is not to say that their outlook will not change in time.
What is damning about these users jumping the gun and espousing their views without first thinking about the implications is that their polarising thoughts are essentially enshrined on the Internet for a long, long time. This is most obvious with the last interviewee, who goes by the name of Kjell.
In the wake of a report on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Kjell suggested that Muslim extremists should be deported to another planet. "Back here on earth we could live in peace, far from these idiots," he said.
Kjell has since had a change of heart.
"I (now) work with a Muslim, and he is all right," he said. "I don't have an issue with immigration any more. I was very harsh on immigration before, but people change."
Tellingly, Kjell added: "If I met myself in a discussion forum right now, I would get into an argument with my former self."
The video, viewed more than 130,00 times since it was posted last Monday, has generated a strong discussion on the sensitive topic.
One user said: "What a sad tale. At least the final one had broken his own cycle. If ever there were a group of people who should 'get out more', then I can't think of it."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'When social media is not very sociable'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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