By Drew McLachlan
People targeted by trolls online could suffer from feelings of persecution and suspicion, a leading psychiatrist has cautioned, as last week’s terror attack in London highlighted the ugly face of prejudice on social media platforms.
A photo of a woman dressed in a hijab as she walked past a group of people attending to an injured victim of last Wednesday’s attack, while on her phone, was trolled by some social media users as an example of an “indifferent Muslim”.
In the days after the photograph was widely shared online, it emerged the woman was in a state of shock after the terrorist assault and had offered help to others injured in the attack, before the picture was taken.
While trolling and other aggressive dialogue is commonplace on social media networks – prompting Twitter to introduce harsher steps last month for suspended users – World Psychiatric Association president professor Dinesh Bhugra said events such as the terrorist attack on Westminster could lead to spikes in such activity.
He said: “It is entirely possible that rates of attacks and aggression go up as people feel threatened. In these xenophobic times, attacks against minorities are on the rise and often gross generalisations are made as if every member of a racial or religious group shares the same views. There is no doubt that some individuals who are being trolled will feel persecuted and may feel suspicious of others around them as well.
“Most people can ignore such attacks, as in many cases people come across antisocial behaviour in public places and will ignore that, but others will take it very personally and feel hurt by such behaviour.”
The woman depicted in the photo, wishing to remain anonymous, spoke to Islamophobia monitoring group Tell MAMA, explaining she had spoken to other witnesses, offering help, before the photo was taken.
She said: “To those individuals who have interpreted and commented on what my thoughts were in that horrific and distressful moment, I would like to say not only have I been devastated by witnessing the aftermath of a shocking and numbing terror attack, I’ve also had to deal with the shock of finding my picture plastered all over social media by those who could not look beyond my attire, who draw conclusions based on hate and xenophobia.”
The photographer, Jamie Lorriman, spoke out in her defence, describing her actions as “completely appropriate” and saying that his photo had been “misappropriated” on social media.
He told the Independent: “It’s people who clearly have an agenda they want to push and will just put whatever they think out there.”
Bhugra said that witnessing a terrorist attack or similar event could lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and added that information on the condition can be found online, including on the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ website.