Big myth in protester’s death

By | January 15, 2020

It was easy for trolls to justify their vile attacks on Wilson Gavin.

Truly, it was horrifying watching the 21-year-old president of the University of Queensland’s Liberal-National Club ambush a library storytelling event by a drag queen. I don’t think we should gloss over that.

The protest was videoed and posted to social media, triggering a storm of commentary and extreme cyberhate. Wilson died by suicide two days ago, a victim of the biggest myth of social media.

Yes, it’s true that online we can’t see people’s faces and there’s no social contract. Our interactions are therefore “gamified” because there seems to be no consequence for our actions.

This is known as the “online disinhibition effect” – and it is the largest myth of all. And this week, we just learned the consequences can be swift, devastating and irreparable.

First and foremost, my heart goes out to Wilson’s family and community. They have lost someone they love in terrible circumstances – and we need to respect their grief.

The question I’m drawn to ask here is: Where was the acceptance of others in this terrible story? Where was our consideration of each other’s humanity?

The protest Wilson led was awful and that shouldn’t be ignored. As a parent, I teach my children love and acceptance. As I have written previously, I hope my children have the strength to be who they are and to reach for opportunities. I hope they get a good education. But most of all, I hope they can move through the world with courage and compassion for others.

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The actions of UQ’s Liberal-National Club spouted the opposite of this. They modelled behaviour that showed it’s okay to shout down, dehumanise and belittle people who are different from you.

And let’s be clear here. All the research shows that if you dehumanise specific groups in society, this is directly linked to real-life violence being perpetrated against those marginalised people.

However, all things being equal, the social media response to this video was vile. You can’t solve hatred with hatred. And frankly, we need to play the ball and not the man.

My understanding is that Wilson was sent vile and violent threats because of his involvement in this storytelling incident. He was told to kill himself.

Does this ring a bell? It should.

These threats are much like those TV personality and former model Charlotte Dawson, who also died by suicide, received. And also like the threats teenager Dolly Everett received before she died.

Why don’t we understand that it’s possible to express strong views about the issue at hand, without threatening someone’s safety?

As my book Troll Hunting forensically demonstrates, cyberhate is clearly linked to real-life harms, and incitement to suicide is one of those.

However, we do also need to understand this situation is complex. Extreme cyberhate can certainly be a significant factor in a person’s decision to end their life – but usually it’s not the only factor. For example, mental illness and other life stressors may come into play and effectively triangulate with the cyberhate.

In the text of my book, Alan Woodward from Lifeline – who has been working in the field of suicide prevention for fifteen years – says: “A person experiencing that level of abuse and trauma from bullying may feel that there’s no way out and may feel a sense of entrapment.

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“And that is something that can quite often be associated with suicidal behaviour.”

He also describes “the journey to suicide” as “a river forming and as the water flows through the catchment, there are various tributaries that contribute to the creation of that river”.

There have been hints Wilson’s life wasn’t all that rosy. One relative reportedly said, “he was a very tormented soul”. But the point is that we don’t know more. We therefore need to be careful of jumping to hasty conclusions without all the information about his circumstances.

What I do know is that each day in Australia, six men take their lives. Eighty-two men call an ambulance due to suicidal thoughts or attempts.

If, like me, you are pondering on this. If like me you are left with a dark sense of waste at Wilson’s death – the terrible hole that hatred burns in us all – take the word that Alan Woodward gave to me: Hope.

He told me there are always other choices apart from suicide. In my own mental health darkness, I have certainly thought about it at times too. Maybe you have as well. But there are always places to find help and support, and start seeing a future again.

Rest in peace, Wilson.

Ginger Gorman is a social justice journalist and cyberhate expert. Her best-selling book is Troll Hunting. You can follow her on Twitter @GingerGorman

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