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“Going viral taught me that scepticism is another schism between the sexes”

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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After going viral this week, one woman discovered the depths of male cynicism online. 

This week, I accidentally went viral. It wasn’t for a particularly noble reason; as young people are wont to do, last Friday I went out and ingested alcohol. I’d recently gotten a new phone with a particularly impressive camera and the more intoxicated I got, the more I waved it around, trying to snap my friends and demonstrate just how crystal clear the pictures were.

On my way home, I paid a visit to my local kebab place (Ali Baba’s in Dalston, in case you want to try their wares). Whilst there, I staged an impromptu photoshoot of the long-suffering staff. Unlike my friends, the staff couldn’t escape the camera so easily. I captured a pretty solid selection of shots and proceeded to upload them to Instagram with the caption “Late night angels xxx.”

Apparently. You see, I don’t remember. When I woke up on Saturday morning, I had a message from my friend, complimenting me on my “good kebab pics”. “Huh?” I thought. Upon opening Instagram, a flurry of notifications alerted me to my Martin Parr pretensions. No way. How on earth could I delete such a huge chunk of time – and creative effort – from my brain? But the friend who’d accompanied me to get kebabs and walked me home, confirmed the story.

“You don’t remember?” he texted. “It was hilarious! The guys didn’t even notice you taking photos.” 

“What about my kebab?” I asked – I had a sinking feeling I’d lost it.

“You ate it. Whilst selecting your pictures,” my friend told me. “You kept muttering that they were ‘amazing’, so you were staying humble at least.”

It was, clearly, a funny yarn. So I tweeted about it. 

As someone who had a ratio of 30,000 tweets to roughly 1,300 followers, it’s safe to say what happened next was unexpected. But the combination of kebabs, alcohol and a really crisp smartphone camera clearly touched a public nerve. Retweets, favourites and comment notifications began rolling in before my disbelieving eyes. First 600, then 2,000, then 10,000 (currently the tweet sits at 35,000 favourites). The story was spreading like wildfire. By Monday, the papers had caught wind of it; I gave brief interviews to some and told the less savoury ones to take a hike (to little avail). Then BBC Radio 1 got in touch and before I knew it, I was sitting on a bench in the rain on my lunch break, telling the story live on air whilst simultaneously trying to swallow a mouthful of noodles.

For the most part, going internationally viral (Ali Baba’s staff are now recognisable in countries including Japan, Australia and the USA) was relatively painless. 90% of responses to the photos were merely ego-swelling (“Great pictures!”) or people tweeting how likely they were to also do this (so prove it, guys). But there was a small sub-section of URL goblins who emerged to inform me in no uncertain terms that the events I’d lived through - albeit with no memory of them - categorically “did not happen”.

“Contender for @_DHOTYA,” a typical tweet read. After seeing the acronym crop up repeatedly, I learned it stood for ‘Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards’, a Twitter account dedicated to spotlighting supposedly ‘fake,’ stories, with ‘entries’ submitted anonymously by other users. Others accused me of being a marketing stooge for Google, the makers of my phone. Comments elsewhere focused on my apparent arrogance in posting the pictures. “Nothing to brag about,” one person wrote. Finally, there were those who honed in on my drunken state. “And [women] wonder how/why they [are] sexually assaulted,” posted someone. “Disgusting.

What was intriguing about these individuals who were so incensed I’d had the audacity to capture a few pictures whilst under the influence, was what bound them together. They were all - or at least, claimed to be on their profiles - men.  

I wanted to see if any other women experienced similar reactions to a viral tweet. A quick scan of the DHOTYA page quickly revealed a recent raft of women on the receiving end of these allegations. I spoke to Abbie, a 20-year-old whose tweet regarding her “feminist icon” grandma had received 31,000 favourites – and attracted a lot of sceptics. I asked who was questioning her.

“The demographic of people telling me it didn’t happen or my grandma was stupid [was] mostly young men,” she recounted to me in an email. “Women found the tweet funny, or agreed they had family members who were similar. The accusations made me feel agitated. I didn’t feel like it was [an impossible incident] to happen, so I didn’t understand why people would find it so unbelievable. People made comments about my grandma and someone even went as far as to say I was mentally ill for ‘making up’ such a story.”

I was fascinated. Was this part of a wider phenomenon? We already know that women tend to have their experiences invalidated more than their male counterparts; whether that’s when reporting medical concerns, or speaking about sexual violence and everyday sexism. But did this pattern of denial also apply to much smaller fry, like my story of patchy memory and surprisingly good pictures?

Digging into scientifc journals unearthed an interesting find; a 2012 report on the differences in cynicism between the sexes. In a global study, researchers from China found that men consistently displayed higher social cynicism, “mistrust politicians and most authority figures, regard the average person as false-faced […] and conclude that you should basically look out for yourself”. This contradicted the expectations of the investigating team. They’d predicted that “male dominance” in society should result in women showing higher social cynicism than men. Instead, they discovered the “higher levels of aggression and competitiveness” men possess are more influential in shaping cynicism – resulting in men around the world being far less likely to accept anything at face value. It’s a conclusion that’s easily verified – I ran DHOTYA’s 28,000 followers through an analysis tool, Propoti.onl, that estimates gender ratios on Twitter. From what Propoti.onl could glean from the available information, 89% of the account’s fans were male.

So, men were proven to be the more cynical of the sexes – but did they apply that scepticism equally on the web? Or were self-identifying females more likely to bear the brunt of their distrust? The only way to find out was to get it from the horse’s mouth.

“Hi,” I tweeted to the males who’d initially accused me of fabricating Kebabgate. “I’m doing a piece on cynicism and the internet. Could I message you with a few questions?”

“Nah, you’re alright thanks,” said one user, before promptly blocking me (the second man to do so when I engaged with him). “No,” another succinctly replied. Most didn’t respond, including whoever is pulling the strings on the DHOTYA account. But one user - 32-year-old Stevie, who went under the moniker ’@goddamnpal’ and had initially tagged @DHOTYA beneath my kebab tweet and asked if it was a “Work or Shoot?” - got back to me.

“Fire away,” Stevie said. I asked him why he’d selected my tweet as an example of lying online, and what drove him to publicly call out stories he believed to be fake.

“[It was] the fact the photos were perfect when [you] were in an intoxicated state,” he replied. “Nothing drives me to [call out stories], I just automatically don’t believe anything I see online. After countless photos ‘tugging at our hearts’ have turned out to be a [viral campaign], I assume everything is fake, even things from people I know.”

“But are men more likely to disbelieve women?” I asked. “And why are they so cynical in the first place?”

Stevie was wary of getting into the ‘gender cynicism thing’, as he dubbed it. “If I did give my opinion,” he said, “I would be crucified like Pinochet [the infamous Chilean dictator who murdered around 30,000 people during his two-decade rule].” However, he was willing to be drawn on whether women are more likely to become the targets of male suspicion online.

“No, if your kebab story was [reported by] a man, I would have called it out with zero prejudice. I have called out many men in the past with [stories] made up purely for the numbers,” he asserted. “As Chris Finch would say, how can I hate women? My mum’s one.”

I couldn’t tell if invoking the name of a fictional character from The Office, known for his rampant sexism, was a joke or not. But Stevie seemed sincere. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” he signed off. It had been a somewhat enlightening insight into the mindset of one of an army of young men who believe they’re doing the world a favour by calling bulls**t on anything they perceive as false.

The problem, as Stevie unwittingly revealed, is that these young men have no real gauge of what is the truth anymore. Their naturally high cynicism is in overdrive and the constant stream of fake news – a factor Stevie explicitly cited as a source of his scepticism during our conversation – mean the only people they now trust are themselves. 

Gender certainly intersects with the trend – whatever Stevie says, it is an unassailable fact that there is an element of sexism at play in the general misgivings women are subject to when sharing their stories. But my viral experience – and the ensuing attacks – mostly showed me that there are a lot of lost, lonely men out there whose ability to believe others has been dangerously damaged by growing up online, in a way their female peers have not. And that’s something far more worthy of our attention than a tweet about kebabs.

Images: iStock


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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is a freelance writer with an excessive amount of opinions. She tweets @moya_lm.