opinion

Wilson Gavin died this week. Related or not, Twitter is an awful place.

Twitter did not kill Wilson Gavin. But it’s a hellscape nonetheless.

On Sunday, 21-year-old Gavin led a protest at a drag queen storytime event in a Brisbane library. Along with a group from the University of Queensland’s Liberal National Club, Gavin loudly chanted, “Drag queens are not for kids,” in the face of one of the performers.

A video featuring Gavin as well as other members of the group surfaced on social media on Sunday evening. By Monday morning, Gavin was dead.

We do not know what took place in the private life of that young man on Sunday night. But we do have a sense of what took place in public.

On Twitter, where the video quickly became the top trending topic in the country, the protesters were widely referred to as “the Hitler youth”, a “skid mark on society”, “assholes”, “dickheads”, “twisted”, “sick” and “ugly”.

Listen to this week’s Mamamia Out Loud, where we discuss the complex story of Wilson Gavin. Post continues below. 

One tweet read, “every one of them looks like they have a chromosome missing,” which was rewarded with a few dozen likes, mostly from people who claimed they were outraged by the protesters lack of love and acceptance.

All Twitter did was flip the script, starting a new chant: “Young Liberals are not for kids”. Critics just managed to reproduce the same intolerance and divisiveness they claimed to be rallying against.

“Young Liberals are among the worst people I’ve met in my life,” one man posted. Later, of course, it would emerge that Gavin was not a Young Liberal at all. But Twitter never lets the truth get in the way of a biting insult.

While it would be reductive and irresponsible to suggest that Gavin died as a result of Twitter – his life extended far beyond what he did on Sunday, and he was much more than other people’s criticism of him – it’s worth acknowledging that the insults plastered all over the platform on Sunday night might have been some of the last things he ever read.

We don’t have to ask the authors of those particular tweets how they feel about that possibility. Their actions appear to tell us.

What hasn’t been widely reported is how many high-profile as well as ordinary people rushed to delete their tweets first thing Monday morning. They desperately tried to rewrite the story, ensuring they weren’t implicated in what would inevitably become a discussion about the danger of an online pile-on. It would appear they were so ashamed by what they had said given the turn of events, that they felt compelled to retract their insults.

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Twitter as a platform isn’t about being virtuous. It’s about performing virtue. And on Sunday, virtue looked like competing over who could spit the very worst insult at Wilson Gavin.

On Monday, virtue looked like mourning his death.

What has been different about this case, which has made it invariably more complicated, is that the people who called Gavin a twisted Nazi are actually the same people who expressed their deepest sympathies not 12 hours later. Most did this without any acknowledgement of how quickly they had pivoted.

The community who were falling over themselves trying to adopt Gavin as their own, writing about how they wished he’d found them and experienced acceptance, are the ones who were calling him an entitled dickhead the day before.

This doesn’t say anything about Gavin the person, who ultimately none of us knew. It does, however, say a great deal about the hypocrisy of Twitter.

The medium is the message, and Twitter is a medium that forces us to condense the complexity and nuance of the world around us into 280 characters. The most common length of a Tweet is 33 characters. Just long enough to shout into a megaphone: “Scott Morrison is a f*cking moron”. (Count it. It’s exactly 33 characters).

It is not a place where meaningful or productive conversations take place. Instead, everything is simplified, including people, into categories of either good or bad.

Negativity and a common enemy is what goes viral. Everyone is shouting over the top of each other and yet no one is saying anything of value.

While swarms of people seem desperate to put words into Gavin’s mouth, it might be useful to look closely at the words he actually did say.

“As a conservative you are subjected to an unending barrage of vitriol and hatred… you get attacked online. You get people making comments about your mental health which is something I never expected to hear from these people that preach tolerance. I’ve had people say that I only believe the things I do because I come from a broken family, that I have internalised homophobia, that I hate myself…”

There is hypocrisy in Gavin’s world view. The protest he led against drag queens was an “attack” on their way of life. It is difficult to argue ‘play the ball not the person’ when that’s not what Gavin himself did on Sunday. His behaviour was worthy of criticism.

But we (and I include myself in this, as an ally of the LGBTQI community) cannot argue for love and acceptance while branding someone a Nazi and rallying our lynch mob.

We must hold ourselves to a higher standard because we are outwardly claiming to be holding ourselves to a higher standard.

On Twitter, trolling doesn’t (just) look like death threats and threats of violence. It’s name-calling and character assassination and saying the meanest thing you could possibly imagine about a person as a way of performing your own politics.

If Instagram is the Beautiful Girl in high school, and Facebook is the Know It All, Twitter is the very worst kind. Twitter is the Bully. The kid who turns people against you and laughs at you in the playground. On Twitter, you’re either in or you’re out, and They can turn on you in an instant.

In the case of Gavin, the “trolling kills people” line has been platformed by the same people who trolled Gavin in the hours before his death.

Perhaps the word ‘troll’ is redundant, because it suggests that being a troll is an identity and not a feature of so many of our personalities. A troll is just you or me on a bad day. Celebrities and commentators and journalists are among the worst culprits, not least because they do so between tweets preaching kindness, and know, deep down, the consequence of criticising someone on a platform as big as theirs.

Nothing good can come from a platform that reduces all of us to a sentence or two.

Twitter did not kill Wilson Gavin.

But it was a place horribly ashamed of itself after he died.

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