In the wake of a targeted online harassment campaign against a cyclist who reported 12 phone-using drivers in one day, forcing the rider to delete their YouTube and Twitter accounts, fellow two-wheeled activist Mike van Erp says that some motorists resort to abusing camera cyclists and road safety campaigners on social media because they “feel that they have the right to drive how they want”.
The prominent camera cyclist, better known by his online alias CyclingMikey, also admitted to road.cc that the online harassment he received during the early stages of his road safety campaign impacted him mentally, and that he would treat each comment “seriously”. However, he now says that “there has been such a torrent of abuse and lies about me that I just let most of it wash off me”.
> Victory claimed for harassment campaign by “mob of decent people” as helmet cam cyclist deletes Youtube and Twitter accounts
Van Erp’s comments come just days after Deacon Thurston, an Edinburgh-based cyclist who regularly posted videos of law-breaking drivers to social media, was hounded off Twitter after a co-ordinated attack by users unhappy at the rider for reporting motorists illegally using their phones behind the wheel.
Last Wednesday we reported that Thurston had tweeted that, in the space of an hour, he had filmed 12 motorists using their phones while driving. One of those distracted drivers, the cyclist added, had even previously been spotted using their phone at the exact location where his latest footage had been captured.
However, Thurston neglected to submit the footage to Police Scotland due to the time it would have taken to submit the dozen separate videos, with the force having scrapped plans last year to launch a dedicated portal that would have made it easier for people to upload footage of law-breaking drivers.
> Cyclist catches 12 drivers using phones behind the wheel in an hour
Despite the phone-using drivers escaping any sort of punishment, Thurston’s tweet provoked an unsavoury pile-on, with dozens of Twitter users aiming a range of extreme insults at the cyclist, along with multiple threats of violence.
After the sustained and threatening campaign of abuse forced Thurston to delete his account – an outcome described by one of the abusers as “a victory for decent people” – the attackers then turned their attentions to another high-profile camera cyclist, CyclingMikey.
Referencing the locations of Edinburgh’s two biggest football clubs, Hearts and Hibernian, one Twitter user wrote: “Gorgie and Lochend combined to take down Deacon Thurston – it’s time for the London football brethren to unite and take down CyclingMikey. C’mon all Arsenal/Spurs/etc fans, you know what to do.”
That particular campaign against Van Erp – who reports hundreds of distracted and law-breaking drivers a year – has so far resulted in yet another wave of violent threats, as well as horrible and unsubstantiated attempts at defamation based on clearly faked screenshots.
> "Tired of road crime": CyclingMikey on episode 16 of the road.cc Podcast
However, speaking to road.cc, Van Erp – the subject of almost constant vitriol on Twitter – says that his approach to social media, as well as the trolls, has changed over the years, and that he no longer pays much attention to the “torrent of abuse and lies” aimed in his direction.
“In the beginning of my camera work, almost 17 years ago, I took a lot of strain at the abuse thrown my way,” Mikey told us today.
“I'd answer each comment seriously. Nowadays, there has been such a torrent of abuse and lies about me that I just let most of it wash off me.”
But why is the abuse aimed at camera cyclists on Twitter so vitriolic? Van Erp reckons it’s down to “two main causes”.
“In the UK cyclists are considered by society to be ‘cockroaches of the road’, unworthy scum who freeload on the public highway and are terrible lawbreakers,” he says. “For such a person to challenge a driver for lawbreaking is a massive affront to the social order, and people don’t like this.
“Many of those throwing abuse also feel that they have the right to drive how they want, and that nobody can tell them what to do. They see the prosecutions, and they are afraid of the consequences, and they are angry that someone dares to do this to them.”
He continues: “I take the abuse as a tool – every angry person out there is showing us all, in the words of the inimitable [close pass policing pioneer] Mark Hodson, that there's no reaction without traction. He means that these drivers are upset because they realise that members of the public with cameras are going to force them to change their ways.”
While Mike says that his ability to cope with online harassment has improved over the years, he also admits that the way he uses and handles social media – including interacting with his attackers – has changed too.
“Rather than try to change the minds of those being unpleasant and trolling, I simply try to make them aware of just how many people are filming and reporting bad driving, and of the consequences that result from it in court,” he says.
“After that I tend to block as there’s no point in wasting time on someone like that once they’ve felt some of the worry of the chances of being caught.
“That worry is, in criminology, the thing that stops people offending. It’s the perception and fear of a realistic chance of being caught, not the size of the punishment, that stops much offending. Before now there was so little traffic policing thanks to successive government police cuts that there was little worry about getting caught.
“This is also why I put my stuff on YouTube. People need to see justice being done. Seeing that drivers are being caught and punished for these dangerous behaviours is a big part of changing driver behaviour.”
And this is where Van Erp believes the positive effects of social media, amid the swirling torrent of anger and abuse, come into play – by acting as an easily accessible and wide-ranging deterrent for potentially dangerous drivers.
“I can change only a few drivers’ behaviour myself as I have limited spare time,” he notes. “I try to use social media to change the behaviour of thousands more by showing what happens to people when they are caught and prosecuted, and what they were doing to be caught, and how easily they were caught.”
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