The Tweet is Mightier Than the Sword

Ricky Gervais, the sharp-witted Brit that he is, is excellent at controversy — truly a master of it. He knows exactly what nerve to jab on the Internet to set off a series of controlled detonations that tend to end in an inordinate amount of death threats.

This time around, he has pointed the collective echo chamber that is Twitter and Facebook at Rebecca Francis, a famed huntress and host of NBC Sports’ “Eye of the Hunter,” who posted a picture of herself beaming next to the very dead body of a giraffe — mouth hanging limply open and all.

It is a macabre sight for sure, but the Internet somehow made it a tinge darker in their response.

“I would LOVE to smile next to your dying body. I’d celebrate. Hope some1 carriers your skull in a bag,” one user posted on Twitter, accompanied by a picture of Francis with the decapitated head of a ram.

“The hunter always becomes the hunted’ Rebecca Francis hope you learn this very soon, you vile disgusting creature,” another user said.

Admittedly, we don’t exactly love trophy hunting here. There is something galling about seeing a white male or female using a foreign nation — almost always impoverished and with a majority nonwhite population with a minority of the wealth — as their own personal playground with little to no self-awareness of their role.

But does that make this reaction appropriate?

Francis explained to that she would have never killed a giraffe under normal circumstances, but she was approached with a unique opportunity to kill this giraffe, which had supposedly been kicked out of its tribe by a younger bull and was close to death. She added that in killing it, she would provide the locals with food and other resources and that no part of the giraffe was wasted.

This certainly sounds a bit saccharine, as though they needed this random trophy hunter to do the dirty deed lest the African village waste away, but it does reflect a point most of the outraged masses do not consider: there is a potential utility to trophy hunting for conservationists.

According to the article, “Can Trophy Hunting Actually Help Conservation?” published in Conservation Magazine, countries are able to sell permits, for exuberant fees, to American big game hunters for the right to kill certain endangered and nonendangered species. These funds, at least theoretically, can be funneled back into conservation efforts, especially in fighting against unregulated and rampant poachers. Hunters also expressed interest in hunting problematic animals that would have to be killed by the conservationists either way.

This of course does not mean all trophy hunters are so careful or philanthropic or that all countries use the funding for conservation, and it certainly does not diminish the argument that this joy of killing reflects poorly on the individual regardless of mitigating circumstances.

It does, however, prove this is a more complicated issue than social media would have us believe, and that is a sentiment that can be applied to the myriad controversies that have blazed across Twitter and its ilk.

The Washington Post asked the question, “Why does this only happen to women?” in their opinion piece, “Why Female Big-game Hunters Become the Hunted Online in a Way Men Don’t.”

A similar Internet pummeling session fell on other female big game hunters like Kendall Jones and Eva Shockey, while similar outrage is less common when it is white male hunters.

Maybe it is an issue of privilege? Seeing a pretty blonde in camouflage laying against the corpse of a lion, tiger, bear or giraffe is certainly an incongruous sight. Maybe we think of women as life-givers and not killers, or maybe we just don’t like seeing women in a position of dominance and power?

This issue of sexism is interestingly what Francis used in her retort against Gervais.

She told, “Whether hunting is right or wrong is no longer the issue at hand. Ricky Gervais has used his power and influence to specifically target women in the hunting industry and has sparked thousands of people to call for my death, the death of my family and many other women who hunt.”

Of course, this does not disabuse the notion that what she is doing is immoral, but it does raise the question, “What is the responsibility of the Internet celebrities?”

Gervais made some salient points about these hunters and their mindset, but he also, whether meaning to or not, set off yet another frickin’ spree of death threats against some unsuspecting minor figure.

Should Gervais take responsibility for this? To a point, yes.

Francis should have considered that the message she was sending with that unfortunate picture was, “Look how happy I am and how dead this famously loved creature is.” Gervais and his breed must also become more aware of their rhetorical power.

Did Gervais create this lynch mob on purpose? No, probably not.

And no, not everyone should constantly have to consider whether or not their innocuous comment would incur the wrath of God, brought to them by the Internet. But people do have a responsibility for the effect of their own voice; as the Internet is relatively new, many powerful voices still seem incapable of considering the scope of their potential impact.

This needs to begin changing quickly because, let’s face it, the faceless Internet horde is going to be a little slower to change than Gervais or any other powerful but loose-lipped activist.

But what do we do? We certainly do not want to support limiting free speech and diminishing the power of potentially revolutionary voices, but nor can we endorse flagrant disregard.

The solution then, however difficult it may be, is finding out how to conflate the virality of a Tweet and the utility of a dynamic argument that does not resort to pithy expressions of outrage. We suggest we begin with those whose voices have the most weight.