Blogland: Here be dragons

By Chas Newkey-Burden, July 25, 2011
Follow The JC on Twitter

With revelations about phone-hacking and related press scandals, there is a renewed sense that the media is out of control and in need of further regulation. This tidal wave of opinion should be properly considered by those in power. However, the mainstream press is in many ways a beacon of order and restraint when compared with dangerously feral elements of the online media.

I know how nasty the internet can be. For the past three years I've been a devoted online advocate for Israel and against antisemitism. I've run a popular pro-Israel blog called OyVaGoy, and argued Israel's case on online networks including Twitter and Facebook. Although I'm not Jewish, this issue is very important to me.

My experiences have been largely positive: many people told me I have changed their minds about the issue, others said my writing had encouraged them to visit Israel for the first time, and I've made dozens of new friends here and in Israel. I took part in a bloggers' trip to Jerusalem last summer and I have even been nicknamed "my online ambassador" by the owner of my favourite shawarma joint in Golders Green.

But I also quickly discovered the cruelties of the web. Blogs, discussion forums and other online platforms allow for anonymous comments to be made. People hurl abuse and threats around, with negligible fear of being identified. They never see the faces of those they attack, nor are they aware of the hurt that is caused by their comments - hurt that can spread from the recipient to their loved ones too. Not that some of the attackers would care.

People hurl abuse and threats with negligible fear

Last week, it got too much. With a heavy heart, I decided to stop blogging. Given how committed to Israel's cause I am, and what a success I had made of blogging, people were surprised by my decision. I was a bit surprised myself, actually. But I just want to stop feeling sick when I log on to my computer. I've had enough of going to bed at night with abusive comments ringing in my ears, then waking up to a fresh load of unpleasantness, much of it left by anonymous, shadowy authors.

Even though my blog's comment moderation system prevented their bile going live, I still saw it. When comments are personal or intimidating it is hard to ignore them. The web's anonymity appeals particularly to the resentful, the cowardly and the bored - attributes that are commonplace among antisemites. This is why online discussion about Israel and the Middle East is particularly prone to descent into name-calling and cruelty.

I'm keen to keep what I faced in perspective. I had voluntarily stepped into the contentious and emotive issue of Israel and the Palestinians, so I cannot complain. I'm a sensitive soul, so my reaction to what I experienced should not dissuade anyone from standing-up for Israel online. For all the darkness on the web, there is always light. More of it is needed.

How much more constructive our discussions could be if we all followed a simple rule: only write something on the internet you would say to your opponent's face, in front of a real-life audience. I'm open-minded about whether I will return to blogging in the future. If I do, I will make sure I always operate to that rule. I am now also determined to build awareness of online abuse and cyber-bullying, which create such fear, misery and hurt. It is not a popular issue, as there is a sense of fatalism when it comes to calls for the internet to be policed more effectively. People think nothing can be done.

That sounds like a challenge to me. People said a blog could not change opinions about Israel, and I know how much mine has. I also believe that we can make the internet a better place, and I feel the regular headlines about the tragic effect cyber-bulling has on so many youngsters should be enough for us to approach this issue with determination and urgency. After all, if we can get angry about journalists tapping into people's telephones, then reports of children being driven to suicide by online bullies should have us raging.

Chas Newkey-Burden is an author and radio pundit. He is on the advisory board of StandWithUs UK, and has blogged at OyVaGoy.com

    Last updated: 9:26am, July 25 2011