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"My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully."

Graham Linehan on comedy writing, politics and Twitter.

When you think about the current state of TV comedy, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?

I'm never pessimistic because something always comes along. Every dry period gets shaken up by something like The Office. In fact, it could be said that dry periods create programmes like The Office, which often start as rejections of the current fashion. But they're black swan events, so when everyone tries to copy them they just create a new, dreary status quo to rebel against. I can't bear the mock-doc format now.

How do you personally decide if a joke goes too far or is too cruel?

I love the challenge of covering a taboo subject in a way that can't offend anyone. My favourite comedies do this -- the famous example is the Seinfeld masturbation episode -- and I'm always on the lookout for things that, at first glance, seem impossible to transpose to a comedy setting. I did the episode about Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal, on The IT Crowd because, horrible though the facts of the case were, I heard there was a previous guy who chickened out, so he and Armin went to see Oceans Eleven together instead. I found that hilarious and oddly sweet, so I thought I could do something with it.

Also, Twitter provides a means by which the people attacked in a particular joke can easily get in touch with you. These days, I think: "If the person I was making fun of contacted me, would I be able to defend it?" If the answer is yes, I go ahead. If the answer is no, I ask myself if I like the person. If the answer to that is no, I go ahead.

You said in Mustard magazine that you find it hard to write female comic characters. Do you think audiences still have trouble accepting that women can be funny?

Absolutely not. There may be writers out there who blame their own shortcomings on women but I hope I never become one of them. It's just a little more effort for me to get inside a woman's skin. One thing I have always tried to do is make the female characters as venal, corrupt and silly as the men. Being equally hard on my characters, male or female, is my pathetic little contribution to feminism.

You were a journalist in Dublin. Were you good at it -- and did you enjoy it?

Also here in London, for Select magazine. I enjoyed it very much but I was never a proper journalist. I would write humorous pieces and try and make my subject fit them, rather than the other way round. I was so young. I shudder when I read any of that stuff now. In fact, I shudder when I read things I wrote a month ago.

Are there any journalists you admire?

Plenty! Too many to list! I think the Guardian under Rusbridger has been amazing. I think the Guardian's work over the last decade, especially with WikiLeaks and phone-hacking, has been extraordinary. Literally world-changing. I love the way people like Ben Goldacre give you not just the story but the tools to understand the story and the issues and processes behind it. As a bonus, the Guardian understands what engaging with readers really means and the paper is all the better for it.

How do you think journalism should be funded once print doesn't pay any more -- advertising, paywalls or something else?
Paywalls seem a typical old-worldy example of trying to remake the web in the image of something less efficient, less useful, less shareable. I don't see it working long term. Until people stop resisting the fact that the world has changed utterly, this transition period is going to be longer than it should be and everyone will suffer. I don't have any bright ideas on how to pay for journalism -- if I had, I'd be writing this from my yacht -- but I do know that people will always want it and if you give them a convenient way to pay for it, they will.

You often call out media organisations for their bad behaviour. Are you ever afraid it might damage your career?

I wasn't until now.

How much has Twitter changed your day to day life?

It has totally transformed my life. It has given it an extra dimension and I would miss it terribly were it to disappear. I have daily conversations with people from all walks of life, whom I would otherwise never have known -- human rights lawyers, Egyptian IT Crowd fans who protested in Tahrir Square, policemen, Tories (yes, even Tories!), journalists . . . If ever I see something I like, I immediately find out whether the writer is on Twitter and if so, I'm able to send a note of thanks. A lot of friendships with people I hugely admire have started that way. I get very frustrated when people don't see what a miracle it is. The famous six degrees of separation has been reduced to zero and every day we're feeling the repercussions of that.

Do you think that Twitter-led campaigns -- such as #welovethenhs -- are effective at swaying public opinion and at motivating people to action? Or is Twitter, as its critics suggest, just a cosy lefty echo chamber?

Ask the News of The World. Or Carter Ruck. Or Jan Moir. There wasn't anything cosy about those campaigns. And they got results. I doubt Jan Moir will be tut-tutting the recently deceased any time soon and as for the News Of The World . . .

#welovethenhs wasn't so much a campaign as an attempt to fight propaganda with propaganda. I wrote the first tweet in a Starbucks while waiting for a coffee and a few months later Gordon Brown had inserted the phrase into a speech. That was pretty dizzying but I think the fact that it was so easily co-opted by politicians probably ended up being a fault rather than a feature.

As for the left-wing echo chamber . . . Twitter is made of individuals, so it can't be left or right any more than an individual is purely left or right. There is a problem, however, in that there are a lot of very clever people out there who have decided for whatever reason that they don't want to have anything to do with the internet. Their absence is a problem. They're being left out of the conversation and the conversation is the poorer for it.

You've talked about playing video games (your line about being a dick in Call of Juarez still makes me laugh). Do you think they would be an interesting medium to write for?

Yes. In fact, I did a little work for Little Big Planet 2. It's difficult though, because games often serve the gameplay rather than the story and the stories suffer terribly as a result. Some games with a narrative are so poorly written that I just can't play them. Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption, even LA Noire . . . I just couldn't bring myself to listen to another good actor delivering terrible lines.

How would you describe your politics?

My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully so I guess I'm left-wing. I do believe that the internet is giving us a chance to move on from these limiting definitions, though.

You were critical of the Today programme's "dishonest, binary style of debate". But is there a place for adversarial debate in politics/journalism -- for example, Prime Minister's Questions?

Prime Minister's Questions . . . Is there a less edifying spectacle? Point-scoring. A football match. Not even a football match -- the early computer game Pong would be a better example. PMQs might be many things, but I only tune in expecting to see the government fighting a rearguard action. You never expect to see anyone getting shit done.

As for the Today programme, there is absolutely a place for this kind of debate, but it shouldn't be the default mode. That's lazy. It's almost a way of farming out the job of research to a third party. And in my case, it led to what I still think is a breach of ethics in that the only way they could get me on the program was by giving me a false brief. I was told in an email I'd be talking about "the challenges and excitements of adapting a film for the stage" and that was just a flat-out lie. Michael Billington had been briefed accurately because he was working from a few pages of notes, he had been allowed to prepare. My anger stemmed mainly from the fact that I hadn't been afforded the same courtesy. They still haven't apologised for it.

Do you vote?

Yes. It's good for us to feel powerless once every four years.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?

I was very bad at being single. Lots of regrets there.

Was or is there a plan for your career?

No, I just float from project to project.

Are we all doomed?

How many more times can we read "It was the hottest summer on record" before the newspaper bursts into flames in our hands?

Follow Graham Linehan on Twitter: @Glinner

Defining Moments

1968 Born in Dublin
1994 Begins writing for TV with The Day Today. Later writes for Brass Eye as well as Black Books, Big Train, Hippies and Jam
1995 His co-creation Father Ted premieres
2006 Launches his "old-fashioned sitcom" The IT Crowd, filmed with a live audience
2009 Launches Twitter campaign to support the National Health Service
2011 Perpetrates Twitter hoax that Osama Bin Laden was a fan of The IT Crowd

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.