Shoppers on Oxford Street. At least one of them will be crying. Photo: Getty
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Why is it so shameful to cry in public?

I’ve been a grown-up public crier pretty much since reaching adulthood. But it hasn’t got any easier.

“Vern, get a picture of the depressed London millennial,” I imagine one of the American tourists sitting near me on the Piccadilly Line whispering to her bulbous, khaki short-clad husband.

Vern, perhaps, obliges. For real, the space in front of my closed eyes, the place in which I currently exist, turns from black to red, then back to black in a flash. A camera flash.

I’m only just sentient enough to notice it happen and think, in between spasms of embarrassment hot enough to turn my Oyster card into a mini blue cowpat, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

What a thrill, though, to be part of two tourists’ “authentic London experience”. Maybe, when they paid £22.99 a head for plates of rancid fish and chips and two pints of Stella, in one of those pretend West End English pubs, it occurred to them just how tough things must be for members of everyone’s least favourite generation, living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. OK, maybe not. They probably sat, in abject silence, gagging on their expensive mounds of oily, foodish matter, thinking about how, back in Des Moines, you can get a burger the size of an infant for $6.99.

I have a suspicion though that they’ve recognised something essentially London about this publicly distraught pile of young woman.

My head is in my hands and my eyes are in a highly advanced state of shutness. Emergency shutness. “I’m about to cry in public” shutness. But the tears have broken the seal. And there are a lot of them. I sniff as quietly as I can, but I know that I’m officially “making a scene” now. I might as well be naked from the waist down. Why do I feel like my bush is proudly on display to an entire carriage of tourists, commuters and scared children?

A baby starts crying. When I’m not having a public meltdown, I use a special trick to transform the sound of a child wailing into comedy gold. I close my eyes and pretend I’m listening to a hoover dying. It’s never failed to make me laugh to myself like an utter sociopath. And, trust me, having a few strangers judge you to be a nasty and unfeeling human being is way less painful than twenty minutes of unfunny screaming. But, being a complete wreck right now, the hoover trick isn’t working. It’s just me and a baby crying. Me, a 26-year-old grown-ass woman, and something so young and vulnerable that it spends all day shitting itself.

I’ve been a grown-up public crier pretty much since reaching adulthood. It started, I think, with an ostentatious display of angst – again, on a train – when I was twenty and freshly dumped by my first girlfriend. I remember leaving her house and bursting into some tears in which I remained throughout both the mile long walk to Brighton station and the hour-long train ride back to London. I felt like I was whipping out my bush back then too. After all, crying is one of the most private things you can do. “It is such a secret place, the land of tears,” writes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in The Little Prince.

In fact, moments before another one of my more elaborate public cries, I managed to choke back the inevitable for a good fifteen minutes before realising that, around Oxford Circus, there’s nowhere “good” to cry. I was looking for a public toilet. Sometimes, tragically, it’s easier to cry in the same place you shit than to let anyone see you do it. I even tried the Oxford Street Topshop toilets, but there was a long queue for them. I wasn’t ready to risk crying in a toilet queue. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.

This particular cry, which ended up taking place on a bench in Soho, was the result of an ill-advised attempt to get into advertising. I’d just been to an interview for a place on quite a fancy creative course. It was at an ad agency full of stupid furniture and smart people. People much, much smarter than me. People much better looking, much more grounded, much better dressed and much taller than me. It was a group interview, which I wasn’t expecting. The guy who ran the course, a middle aged ex adman so jaded he practically spoke in clouds of dust, declared, “I fucking hate adverts,” before telling us to spend ten minutes coming up with a new ad campaign for Babybel, before presenting it to the group (about twenty people plus a panel of hugely successful creatives). Anxiety disorder notwithstanding, I felt like I’d just been told I was going to be having a rectal exam in an auditorium full of the world’s most judgemental supermodels. My presentation went about as well as you’d expect it to, given the circumstances. At the very least, I managed to hold off the tears until way after I’d left the building.

But why is public crying so shameful? For me, I’ve realised, it’s partly a gender thing. Being seen (even by complete idiots) as a woman who can’t hold it together – a madwoman in the attic, where the attic is actually a train – is, well, extremely shitty.

So here I am, feeling extremely shitty again. On a train. I’m crying because I’m feeling shitty and I’m feeling shitty because I’m crying. And salty trails of snot are running into my mouth. And I keep on wiping my nose on my shoulder, where it’s leaving the world’s saddest and grossest snail trail. This time, the cry was brought on by a perfect shit storm of starting a new antidepressant and having just been dumped (a classic, I suppose). As soon as I saw the train coming, I knew I was powerless to the cry.

I’ll never know whether Vern really did take a picture of me in my sorry state. But, in a way, I like to think that – on his Facebook page – I’m there in an album called “London 2015” alongside Big Ben and a selfie with Kate Middleton’s waxwork.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

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