‘A stinking flood of hateful Tweets that drained all the energy out of me’

Do you get involved in public debates on prickly issues such as vaccinations or climate change? Tips from people at TU Delft to avoid becoming immersed in social media storms.

The good news is that storms usually pass quickly. (Image: Pixabay)

‘If someone dies from the vaccine, I will hold you responsible.’ This is just one of the hateful messages that Niek Mouter (TPM) found in his inbox after working on research into the level of public support for a vaccination card.

A questionnaire showed that 73% of the Netherlands’ population is open to a vaccination card that imposes limitations on people who refuse vaccinations. The card would only be valid if a virus outbreak occurs in a particular area, and only after the whole population has had the chance to be vaccinated.

Online, the news broadcaster NOS summarised the situation with the headline ‘Access to bars with the vaccination card? Three quarters of the Netherlands is for it’. This could not be right, opined the Dutch branch of Russia Today, and labelled the message as fake news on its Facebook Channel.

‘There was a sudden deluge of angry emails’

References to the Second World War and Nuremberg aplenty quickly appeared on social media. “There was a sudden deluge of angry emails,” says Mouter. “A story that TU Delft wanted to introduce a vaccination card did the rounds on social media. Nonsense, of course. And voices were raised to demonstrate at TU Delft. Most of the people who emailed me in anger had not even read the research.”

It was definitely not a good time, says Mouter. “Still, I am happy that my research could contribute both to society and to science. Luckily, the storm on social media soon subsided. People need to vent sometimes and their attention quickly turned to Jaap van Dissel (of the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) and Hugo de Jonge (Minister of Health).”

Mouter now says that he looks at a report through ‘Twitter eyes’ before publishing it. He tries to word the texts in a way that makes it difficult to be taken out of context and giving the wrong impression of the research. “However, you cannot entirely avoid these kinds of situations.”

He says that the hate messages will not stop him from continuing doing socially relevant research. “If you stop, you would only be giving in to the people that send threatening messages.”

Ignore people who start shouting straightaway
Andy van den Dobbelsteen of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment has also had his share of digital muck. On New Year’s Eve 2018, the Professor of Climate Design & Sustainability issued a series of Tweets (in Dutch) in response to an article in the ‘De Telegraaf’ newspaper. The article included an interview with Emeritus Profess Guus Berkhout about a declaration (in Dutch) against the Netherlands’ Climate Act.

The declaration, which Berkhout had signed, stated that the ‘cold and hunger’ that the Government will bring upon us with its climate and energy plans, are ‘a lot more likely than the horrors of the climate itself’. He also trivialized the effect of carbon dioxide on climate change and accused climate scientists of ‘joining in the money making machine’.

‘A shocking declaration’

‘A shocking declaration,’ wrote Van den Dobbelsteen. His message was that the signatories stick with what they know. He pointed out that none of the signatories were climate scientists.

His Tweets hit the spot. “On the first day, I responded to countless interesting and sometimes cynical questions and comments from the Twitterati. This went on well into New Year’s Day 2019, but as the day progressed, I received more critical, cynical, accusatory and completely insulting responses. I continued to respond to the substantive questions and comments, thinking that if I sowed the storm, I must reap it.”

After the website published an article (in Dutch) entitled ‘Dominee Dobbelsteen faalt met klimaatpreek’ (minister Dobbelsteen’s climate sermon fails), ‘Dominee Dobbelsteen’ became trending.

“There followed a stinking flood of hateful Tweets that drained all the energy out of me. I realised that most of the people who attacked me were totally disinterested in a rational debate, but only wanted to discredit me. Very few were real followers. Many were anonymous aliases – trolls – and bots.”

‘I block people who start shouting straightaway’

“I started being more careful with how I formulated things as I realised that there are people on social media who have all the time in the world to get you on every detail of your work. I am also careful with tagging Twitter addresses that I know lots of trolls follow. I used @telegraaf in my New Year’s Eve tweet and this apparently drew a lot of readers immediately. I block people who start shouting straightaway and ignore the people who only want to push their own opinions and not enter into a discussion. Before responding to anyone, I also check that they are real people.”

The army of internet commentators are busy elsewhere
That you can also fall into a social media storm without even sticking your neck out happened to TU Delft researchers Thomas Frederikse, Riccardo Riva (Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences) and Matt King, their colleague in Australia, a couple of years ago. In a fairly technical article published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, they calculated that it is highly likely that the increased sea mass has slightly deformed the ocean bottom over the last few decades. It amounted to a tenth of a millimetre a year. Very little. Still, they believed it was worth mentioning because it would help calibrate satellite measurements.

They did not issue a press release, thinking that their findings would not interest many people. But both climate change deniers and environmental activists responded fiercely on social media. The right-wing populist Breitbart News further stoked the fire. The site stated that ‘Scientists in the Netherlands have found a new excuse as to why sea levels are stubbornly refusing to rise in line with Al Gore’s doomsday predictions: “ocean bottom deformation.”’

‘I have never received threats’

Newsweek took a completely different – ridiculous – angle. ‘So much extra water is being added to the world’s oceans from melting glaciers that the ocean floor is sinking underneath the increasing weight … the problem [of the rising sea level] could be far worse than previously believed.’

Frederikse, who now works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the USA, said in an email that his publications are still being referenced on the websites of climate pseudoskeptics and that he still receives strange emails once in a while. “I sometimes receive messages from people who are convinced that wind turbines will make the earth stop turning. I have never received threats.”

“What strikes me is that the ruckus is always short-lived. Nobody looks at these kind of messages after a couple of days. The army of internet commentators are busy elsewhere. This is good to know if someone goes through this. The storm usually dies down quickly.”

Editor Tomas van Dijk

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