With Friends Like These

Kerry Fender by Kerry Fender Additional Needs

Kerry Fender

Kerry Fender

Down’s Syndrome, my family and me – one mum’s account of family life with an extra chromosome.

‘Closed’ (members only) online support groups are used not just by those who have no actual support groups nearby, or whose circumstances prevent them getting out to such, but by people from all walks of life whose children have a particular disability, ‘condition’ or need in common, because of the wide base of knowledge and experience contained within these diverse, often international, groups.

They can, however, be a bit of a minefield for the unwary.

The nature of online communication, which lacks the nuances and non-verbal cues of a face-to-face conversation, such as tone of voice and body language, make misunderstandings that much more likely.

In an environment where many members may have skins worn thin by the weight of grief, worry and the negativity of others, or the struggle to come to terms with their child’s diagnosis, or to find the energy to meet the extra demands and stresses placed on them.

It is easy to post something, or to make a comment, that inadvertently upsets someone.

In most cases where this happens the issue is resolved in a mature and amicable fashion – the members are adults after all – apologies are offered, true intent and meaning are made clear.

But I have witnessed a few instances where the exchange of comments has gradually taken a slightly more... disturbing ... turn.

It starts with a comment which suggests that one member has taken a perfectly well-reasoned general post, or an equally reasonable comment made in response to it, as a deeply personal attack.

I think of them as ‘Facebook Martyrs’ but there is probably an official classification for this sort of behaviour among those who study online behaviour for research purposes.

It is likely that you will respond, because at first it will appear just like any other misunderstanding that can be straightened out with a little clarification and a few conciliatory words.

But if you do, and however you do, they will probably (metaphorically) sigh that they ‘do not have time for your drama’ because they have ‘bigger things to worry about’.

They may well suggest that your time and energy would be better spent on ‘the things that matter’ (to whom?), insinuating that because, unlike you, they do have their Priorities In The Right Place, they are morally superior.

The best thing to do would be to step away from the conversation now, and turn off the notifications.

But it’s difficult not to respond when you know that if you don’t they’ll be gloating through their tears because they’ve shut you down, and swiped the moral high ground to boot by playing the victim.

At this point they may well make veiled insinuations about your personal qualities, or lack of them.

They reserve particular hatred for anyone who appears articulate and confident, because they ‘don’t come here to be spoken to like that’ (no, they come to have others agree with them and pat them on the back for doing the things the rest of us do without complaint or comment every day); they’re just a humble soul, doing the best they can to survive the terrible struggles and sacrifices that life has heaped upon them, that you couldn’t possible understand.

Suddenly you discover that this person you’ve never encountered before is an expert on your life and the reasons why you are so bitter and mean.

You will also discover that this person who did not have the time or energy for ‘your drama’ has tremendous energy for a personal fight.

Now they will start calling for back-up by tagging ‘friends’ into their comments, who will surround you, spitting out words like obnoxious’, ‘selfish’, ‘arrogant’, ‘bad mannered’, ‘rude’, ‘vicious’ (delete as applicable).

If you are a woman, you will also be ‘not a nice person’ (because, of course, all proper women are ‘nice’), or you are a bad mother (because, of course, any half-decent one would be fully consumed with her child’s needs, not messing about on Facebook).

The gaggle of martyrs will usually now run crying to the admins: ‘Please miss, a nasty person is picking on us, and making us want to leave, but they should be made to leave, because they’re terrifying all the vulnerable new members and making them leave!’

It is probably true that new members are heading for hills in droves: because, having read the martyrs’ comments, they fear the worst –

not only will their lives be an almost unendurable crock of shit, but if they inadvertently say the wrong thing, they stand to be pecked to death by a flock of vulture-hens!

I’m not sure whether the people indulging in this kind of behaviour are also bullies in real life, or even if they are aware that this kind of behaviour could constitute bullying – but it does.

It’s particularly invidious as it creeps up on you in a place where you are entitled to feel safe among friendly fellow travellers on the same road, your squad/ crew/ tribe; it can also be difficult to identify, as it is dressed up as self-defence.

But recognising and stamping out this subtle form of online abuse is something that admins need to be especially vigilant about.


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