Post Viral Syndrome: How It Really Feels To Get Trashed On The Internet

One stupid tweet later, Alya Mooro was a hate figure on Twitter. But after you've gone viral, what happens next?


by Alya Mooro |
Published on

I said something stupid once. Well, actually I’ve said lots of stupid things, but this one I actually wrote down and tweeted out into the world wide web because, you know, that’s what we do these days.

Four years ago I was at a nightclub and inebriated. Bad house music was blasting out of the speakers, and as it happens, I hate bad house music. A lot. It brings back memories of leering men waving sparklers while simultaneously shovelling pills down their throats.

That night, somewhere in the recesses of my stupid alcohol-riddled brain, house music equalled white music (I’ve since learnt they actually have nothing to do with each other and house music actually stems from black culture… but I was young and drunk). So, I took out my phone. But instead of tweeting ‘I hate house music’ as any normal person would have done, or, you know, just keeping it to myself and going home, I wrote something along the lines of: ‘I hate white music.’

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It all went super-downhill, super-fast after that. In the time I managed to take a call from my best friend who had seen the tweet and called to say ‘You’d probably better delete that’, my Twitter mentions had transformed into a seething, pulsating life force of its own.

A lot of the tweets were a blur - I was a tear-stained mess as I read and swiftly blocked them.

A relatively popular (mostly house) music producer with upwards of 3,000 followers retweeted me saying, ‘Are you serious?’ at which point the whole thing erupted, hundreds of his fans and strangers alike tweeting and retweeting my reputation into oblivion. It was out of control – I was even being sent death threats. Some people said because I’m brown I shouldn’t be in the UK anyway. A lot of the tweets were a blur – I was a tear-stained mess as I read and swiftly blocked them.

It felt like a tidal wave of hate. Waking up the next morning my feed was filled with what felt like hundreds of comments from all around the world. What’s more, as none of these people actually followed me, I couldn’t apologise or even mention the incident, as doing so would just have alerted more people to what I had said.

Days later and it showed no sign of abating. I privatised my tweets and refrained from mentioning anything about the incident on social media, hoping it would just die down if I refused to give them further ammunition.

My friends were supportive – they know me well enough to know I didn’t possibly mean what I said. But once I started receiving death threats, my parents wanted me to go to the police, something I didn’t want to do because I felt I was the one who had started all this mess in the first place, and I was worried I would be blamed or get in trouble for being an idiot and tweeting something inflammatory.

Was this the rest of my life then? Just for a stupid tweet I didn’t mean, not even while I was writing it?

Even my work was affected. I’m a freelance writer and many of my editors received tweets demanding that I be removed from my job. It felt like it was never going to stop – was this the rest of my life then? Just for a stupid tweet I didn’t mean, not even while I was writing it?

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Eventually, after a couple of weeks it did calm down, but one of the scariest realisations came a year or two later, when I thought it had all gone away. Someone dug up an edited screenshot of the tweet and the spiral of hate began again. It made me realise that there’s no such thing as delete on the internet.

What’s more, once it’s out there, you literally have no control over it. As I’ve discovered, the internet has a way of grabbing hold of something and turning it into something far greater than the sum of its parts. And my experience is far from unique.

Last month, student Louisa Foley faced the wrath of the internet after sharing a picture of herself in a bikini, grinning with a beer in hand, while Eastbourne pier burnt down behind her. Another teenage girl, Breanna, recently posted a picture of herself smiling in Auschwitz, the concentration camp.

The replies that followed ranged from: ‘You took a selfie in a place where thousands of people were murdered during WWII. Are you fucking insane?’ to ‘My relatives died at Auschwitz, can I smile at your dad’s death?’

There’s no denying the errors of judgment involved. But whereas once it would be just your friends telling you to get a grip, now it’s the entire world.

Melissa Stetten, a US-based writer, was recently fired from her job as a contributor at xoJane when a joke tweet she had made years before came back to haunt her: ‘Ugh. Just accidentally rubbed my arm on a minority in the subway. That’s how Contagion started right?’

In an apologetic blog post on xoJane (after which she was fired anyway for writing a second tweet which xoJane felt undermined her apology), Melissa explained: ‘In my mind, I was thinking, “Haha, I accidentally touched a Latino person’s hand on the subway, it’s like how Gwenyth Paltrow touched a Chinese man’s hand and caused Contagion, what a dumb plot for a movie.” But the internet didn’t see it that way.’

I had to get on anti-anxiety medication because I couldn’t sleep and I was having night terrors.

‘The month after that was the hardest month I’ve ever dealt with mentally,’ Melissa told The Debrief. ‘I had to get on anti-anxiety medication because I couldn’t sleep and I was having night terrors. I even got so depressed that I contemplated suicide. It seemed much easier to be dead than to try to build my reputation back up from that nightmare.’

On New Year’s Eve, Safiyyah Nawaz took to Twitter to write: ‘This beautiful earth is now officially 2014 years old, amazing’. A joke. It was retweeted over 14,000 times. Some people even demanded she kill herself for her supposed idiocy. ‘I never expected to have such an overwhelmingly brutal response from thousands of strangers,’ Safiyyah told us.

My own experience has made me realise that anything you say or do on the internet can be used against you, and for the rest of your life. What’s more, where the internet is concerned, the power of words are decided for you, not by you.

These days, I’m no less obsessed and still share lot of my life online, but I’m much more careful about what I say.

Even writing this piece makes me nervous, in case it all starts again. But I can’t live in fear of something stupid I once said and didn’t even mean. I was 21 and an idiot and didn’t understand the power of the internet the way I do now. I thought tweeting was just the equivalent of group texting a bunch of your best friends (who presumably understand what you mean at all times). It’s not.

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These days, I approach social media in a different way. I’m no less obsessed and still share lot of my life online, but I’m much more careful about what I say. Now I think through what I’m tweeting, if it’s actually necessary and if it was taken out of context would it still mean what I wanted it to.

I’m much more aware of the sheer reach of things posted on social media and at the fact it can zoom its way around the world and back before you can even proofread it for spelling mistakes.

I try not to take to Twitter to voice my opinions much any more, unless they’re positive. I use Twitter to share my work, build and maintain professional relationships and I try as best I can to stay the hell away from negativity.

As Jon Stewart once said, ‘The internet is just a world passing notes around a classroom.’ And we can all feel free to participate, just be sure it’s not one that will get you expelled after the teacher confiscates it.

Follow Alya on Twitter @moorizZLA

Picture: Eugenia Loli

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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