Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A few thoughts on mental health, publicity and online abuse

Regular readers of this blog will by now know that I have spent the last week away from all forms of social media. There was little point blogging during this period because my work is mostly read through Facebook and Twitter. At the time of writing, I am still inactive on both sites but I am planning to rejoin Facebook after this post has been published. 

It might be worth backtracking here a little bit. Last Monday, I wrote a blog post outlining why Vote Leave did not ever advocate leaving the Single Market. In hindsight, I wish that for all the traction it got I'd introduced a few more points into it. That must be an issue for most writers - thinking of argumentation you forgot to include after publishing something. It's really quite frustrating. I'll probably expand upon it at some stage, so not to worry. 

The piece I wrote explained, with reference to campaign literature, that the campaign had a non-position on whether Britain should leave the Single Market, and was later republished in the New Statesman. I stand by what I wrote and am able to defend my position. After tweeting it out and going to bed, I was quite surprised to find the next morning that it had steamrolled and garnered a huge amount of attention from broadcasters, academics and politicians. 

Faisal Islam and several other mainstream journalists found what I wrote quite illuminating, and after doing some digging concluded that there was quite a lot of merit in what I was saying. The campaign stance on the Single Market, as I will maintain and say until I am blue in the face, was ambiguity. As I wrote before, if you don't believe me, check out our website (the briefing guide and page on 'What Leave looks like' are particularly helpful) and decide for yourself. 

Of course, the reason this blog occasionally attracts mainstream buzz is because, as Pete outlined quite correctly last week, I have a modest connection to the Westminster bubble. North writes:

"The political bubble, as we have previously discussed, functions entirely on prestige. One glaring example of this could be found on Twitter today. Oliver Norgrove, formerly of Vote Leave, had his latest blog republished in The New Statesman. Not wishing to discourage Oliver, but none of the points made are anything especially new, and indeed other bloggers have been making these same points for months. Oliver though, being a former Vote Leave staffer, has that glimmer of prestige.
It doesn't matter that Oliver is quite young and had a non-strategic role in the campaign - and in fact was quite junior. All that matters to the media is that he carries a scintilla of official Westminster bubble institutional gravitas. Nothing outside of the bubble exists. That is true of Brexit and it is true of everything else. Though I am extremely pleased that Oliver is getting this exposure, I am also quite annoyed because it tells us that those of us toiling in obscurity have largely been wasting our time."

As ever, what he writes is more or less spot on. The one thing I would add in reference to whether the Flexcit crew have been wasting their time is that quite often snippets of their work is found reproduced by think tanks or a handful of hacks, who clearly know where to go in order to find the highest quality research into the subject. I still believe that nothing compares to the breadth and power of the research that went into Flexcit, hence why I base my ideas fairly close to the centre of its gravity. 

One interesting thing to note about Flexcit is that in spite of this, as thorough and useful as it has been for thousands, quite a number of people working in the media have no idea what it is. There is no need to mention any names, but last Tuesday I had a few phone calls and email exchanges, as well as various Twitter exchanges with even quite well-known journalists and producers, who were not aware of what Flexcit was, much less read any of it. I always bring it up if I get anything close to media attention because its importance can't be overshadowed. 

I was in talks with Sky and a few programmes at the BBC last week, but decided before anything materialised to advise them not to have me appear on anything as I needed some form of withdrawal. The intensity of the reaction on Tuesday morning and afternoon was something I couldn't have prepared for. Furthermore, what shocked me was that it all seemed to flock towards information that is already public. I didn't reveal any secrets, just the uncomfortable truth that there is no such thing as a mandate to leave the Single Market. This point alone speaks volumes about where the priorities of the mainstream media have been laying since all this began. The fury and degradation which greeted me was astonishing. I have never known vitriol like it. 

Until now, I had totally underestimated the impact that online abuse can have on a person. And by extension the way it can affect an individual's mental health and perception of themselves. Lord knows how people like Owen Jones get by, having to put up with it almost every day. I experienced it for a full day, having stood for the first time in anything resembling spotlight, and needed some time away from social media. Twitter is especially poisonous. I think this is because it is a micro-blogging site, and the people on it tend already to be either very political or very opinionated.

I have friends who have reported to me in the past that withdrawing from social media is a useful way of recuperating. Mostly, they said, Facebook was the problem, but for me it was Twitter. Anybody who follows me on both knows that my approach to each platform is entirely different. On Twitter I am political and professional, on Facebook I am funny and spend most of my time mocking friends. This is deliberate: it reflects how I view each site and the uses they have for me. Differences aside, though, the point I have to make here is that deactivating and pulling away from it all has proved incredibly helpful. 

Attempting to explain why is difficult, but I will do my best at the risk of sounding a little bit mental. Closing an account down and deleting an app may seem like just an ordinary, mundane action, but it has a strange healing effect. When I look down at my phone and see the Facebook and Twitter logos, I see not just a graphic but a piece of me (and my identity) sitting inside of them. Withdrawing from these sites feels in some way like I am collecting damaged parts of myself and can focus on complete recovery. I noticed during my absence significant improvement in my relationship with my family, with whom I live, and especially with my younger brother. Perhaps this was because, despite our occasional, normal hostilities, they are familiar faces that I am comfortable around and I felt more able to connect with them without distraction or looking over my shoulder, so to speak, at the messages of strangers. 

Last Tuesday, I had what I would describe as a breakdown. My mental health in recent years has actually been fairly good. I can't complain too much. I had a torrid time with depression during my A-Levels but university life was much more enjoyable and, importantly, I found things (politics) I was passionate about. I have the brain that I have and I wouldn't change it, for its many limitations. But anxiety is now an issue for me. Receiving hundreds of messages from people, which were mostly abusive and condescending, revolving either around my age/junior role at Vote Leave or around my alleged betrayal of Brexit (which I have never been more in favour of) was extremely unpleasant. I am painting quite a moderate picture of the kinds of things I received because I don't want to overthink and have them return to my mind. Last week I was largely bed-ridden and nervous, going out late in the evening if I had to in order to avoid people. 

It's odd because I am typically quite a confident and funny person. Though it isn't just about the amount of abuse I can take, I thought my skin was thicker and that this sort of thing would influence me less profoundly. The issue is that online abuse is so often framed in terms of a person's threshold for offence-taking. This is only a partial story. The question of whether I am personally insulted by abuse online is often separate from the cause of anxiety, which is very often triggered by notifications or the speed of interaction alone. I dread returning to Twitter and seeing the 20+ sign atop my mentions. The thought of it is making my stomach churn. In that respect coming back to Facebook is easier in that the deactivation process means I won't be swamped by notifications upon returning. 

Compounding upon this has been the misfortune of losing friends, once again over political differences. I do wonder how many neurons must malfunction in a brain in order to produce a person who refers to another's view of Single Market participation as an important indicator of whether two people should be friendly with one another. Even individuals whom I know in person have turned their backs coldly in disgust at what I have become. This happened during the referendum, I'm no stranger to it. But it certainly doesn't get any less pathetic. 

In some ways it has been a useful experience because I now realise a couple of things. Self-discovery can be strange but ultimately it is my most useful guide. I know that I don't want to have a public profile for the sake of it. If I don't have sound mental health, there needn't be any point in having one. And I appreciate more fully the ways in which social media can have negative consequences on my mental health. Ironically, about a month ago I finished a fascinating book by the neurologist Susan Greenfield on how our brains are being changed by the cyber world. It's called 'Mind Change' and I do recommend it to anybody interested in the topic I am writing about. 

As for publicity, I think there is a certain, underappreciated disdain for young people who inch towards the public sphere. I think it sits largely with older people who believe that they are being overtaken by youth, who by definition lack experience and expertise. Well, so what? If there is one thing our media needs, it's a shake-up and new voices. If that means more young people then so be it. Moving in and around political circles, I now have friends my age with what I would describe as public profiles. I am happy for them. I don't have a public profile as such, but I do retain a very large readership and social media following, and this blog has been praised by numerous academics, trade analysts and researchers. 

Having a distinct surname often makes my work memorable and easier to find, which has its advantages. I don't write for newspapers because I don't pitch to them. I also do not write for publicity, contrary to the accusations of folks last week, having written what I wrote at my independent, unfunded blog. If I wanted to make a name for myself and attack the campaign I contributed to, I would dart straight for the Mail or somewhere similar. The truth is that I don't need to attack anybody and haven't written a derogatory word about any ex-colleague, despite the reasoned political transformation that I have undergone. 

I write because it is my gift and I'm fucking good at it. I use the word 'gift' in all modesty because I did absolutely nothing to get it. At school I didn't practice writing, I could just grasp it better than the other kids and it set me apart. On the last day of year 6, and I will remember this to my grave, my class teacher Anne Gardner tapped me on the shoulder and whispered 'keep writing' into my ear, which gave me some belief going into secondary school that I could be academically productive. I hope I can get in touch with her again one day, perhaps after publishing a book or achieving my doctorate. I believe that everybody is born with a certain gift, and that the key to achieving success is to find that gift and exploit it as best as you possibly can. She helped me to spot mine. 

I blog here for a number of reasons, and one of them is to make other people think. I am good at making people think because I have an air of independence. I know I influence opinion because people write to me or speak to me in person and tell me so. I am not bound by party politics or employment-related restrictions, have useful experience of the most profound democratic feat in recent political history and I put an enormous amount of effort into both the craftsmanship of my writing and the research which compliments it. Finding a tea lady or an intern, as I was hilarious referred to last week, who writes as well and as informatively as I do will be no small task. 

Which acts as a useful reminder, two weeks from the start of my Masters, that I have important things to focus on, worth in intellectual debate and a chance to demonstrate some personal resolve as I work my way towards ever closer union with political life and events. I told you I'm funny. 


  1. I write a small blog and went on Twitter purely to promote Brexit. I have even been asked if I was a troll. My advice is to ignore any personal attacks and respond only to people who question what you WRITE not who you are. Leavers must support each other especially if we are 'sensible ' leavers.
    Just keep faith in what you are doing. That's all you can do.

  2. Dump Twitter, dump faeces book. They are merely ghettos of abuse. If you want to communicate with people - blog, email, phone, or write a letter. Social media as such gives cowards access to abuse from behind a wall. Shut them out. Get your mental security back. Do not consent to their vindictive cowardice. It's your life, not theirs.

  3. What an absolute tit. You interpreted EU Law incorrectly and got called out on it, the only problem was thousands had realised how ignorant you were by then. You may sway opinion of illiterate brexiters but that's about it. Writing isn't bad though.

    1. Where did I interpret EU law? Try responding without insults. It's manageable.