The shaming of a 14-year-old schoolgirl exposed everything that’s terrible about the internet

Online, everyone is divided into opposing teams – and teams are defined by their worst (and loudest) member.

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As the newly-wed Prince Harry and Meghan Markle descended the steps of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, to greet the adoring public, the life of a 14-year-old Scottish schoolgirl called Lauren Taylor descended into chaos.

Lauren – whose name has been changed for reasons that will soon become obvious – tweeted her objection to the wedding as the ceremony drew to a close. Under a profile picture emblazoned with cartoon angel wings and a halo, she wrote: “Unpopular opinion but a black American should not be allowed to marry into a white British royal family.” The opinion was unpopular – multiple Twitter users reported the statement to Lauren’s school. Then, the opinion was far too popular – under the hashtag #IStandWithLauren, white nationalists defended the teenager while spewing racist bile. Within hours, reality TV personalities and YouTube stars branded her “disgusting” and a “cunt”. Within a few more hours, Nazis and nationalists held her up as “the new defender of the West”.

The fall and rise of Lauren Taylor took place on Twitter – the same social network on which three months earlier the schoolgirl declared that she “could not think of anything worse than mozzarella dippers”.

To hear the story of Lauren Taylor is to understand everything there is to know about the internet in 2018. First, it has become a place where racism and hate flourish unencumbered, where the worst voices in society are emboldened to speak freely. There is simply no denying Lauren’s tweet is racist – she plainly stated two people shouldn’t marry because of their races – yet Twitter didn’t remove the post.

When a colleague recently reported a Twitter user for saying she and her fellow Armenians should be shot and left in ditches, Twitter initially “found that there was no violation of the Twitter rules against abusive behaviour”. The fact Lauren felt comfortable sending her tweet, that it then wasn’t removed, and that racial slurs remain, alongside the #IStandWithLauren hashtag, tell us a great deal about the present state of social media.

The reaction to Lauren’s racism, however, tells us even more about how ordinary people think and act online. Public shaming has always been a powerful internet force, but it is no longer fair to say that each of us are acting as individuals with little thought for the cumulative effects of our actions. We have seen the potential repercussions – porn star August Ames took her own life two days after being shamed for a tweet many perceived as homophobic – yet we continue.

People worked together to punish Lauren ruthlessly – she was “doxxed”, meaning users published her private information, contacting both her school and her mother as an act of revenge. Reality TV star Scotty T exposed the schoolgirl to his 1.82 million followers, telling Lauren “your dad should have pulled out”, while another user asked people who knew Lauren in real life to “punch her”. Shaming is now so common that no one thought twice about the fact that the target was a child.

But then you have the reaction to the reaction to Lauren’s racism, the darkest chapter of all. The alt-right are a manic, uncontrolled online force, ready and eager to rip people apart and raise them up on the basis of a single tweet. Under the guise of defending free speech, many doxxed Lauren’s doxxers. The far right, in turn, care little for the age of their victims – they relentlessly harass the survivors of the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Where are the reasoned and reasonable voices? It is possible, isn’t it, to feel that what Lauren wrote was wrong, but that the punishment was wrong, too? Lauren’s story exposes one of the internet’s greatest problems: there is no nuance. You don’t have to be a racist to think that publicly shaming Lauren was wrong, and you don’t have to be a “loony liberal” to think she deserved some form of punishment. Except, on the internet, you do. Online, everyone is divided into opposing teams – and each team is then defined by their worst (and loudest) member.

Lauren’s story demonstrates that the education system is failing British children. Not because she is uninformed about the reality of the British monarchy (upon finding out Prince Philip is Greek and the Queen is partly German, she tweeted: “I disagree with the whole royal family they’re [sic] shouldn’t be people that aren’t british allowed to be in the monarchy”) but because no one is properly teaching children the consequences of how they act online.

Tech giants similarly fail these kids. Aaron Balick, author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, tells me that, neurologically, younger people may be more impulsive, making social media a dangerous place. He suggests that social networks should implement a simple solution – a message that says “Are you sure you want to post this?” before someone clicks send.

Whitney Phillips, author of The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, says online shamers also need to act in better faith, by intervening and helping young people such as Lauren understand how damaging their statements are, rather than insulting them. She notes that racial tensions are now exploited by the far right and mass media, with disinformation deliberately spread online (after all this, is Lauren a Russian bot?).

Because of this, Phillips says, we need to start questioning who our well-intentioned shaming actually benefits. If future historians want a sense of the internet in 2018, they should look no further than the story of Lauren Taylor. Her most recently tweeted defence, however, sums up the online world best. “It’s been a week,” she replied to someone criticising her. “Get over it.” 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead

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