The finale to this season of Black Mirror, “Hated in the Nation”, is a tight police procedural that opens on Jo Powers, a controversial journalist, being murdered after people mob and harass her on Twitter. While each twist and turn is telegraphed, the episode is best at showing how viciously efficient social media is at bringing its users pain, even if no one using it thinks they’re throwing a punch.
As she reads the threatening tweets that had been sent to Powers, Karin Parke, the officer in charge of the murder investigation, notes that internet mobs are casual hate put out into the world without a thought. People are just mean online because because they can be. They try to make others feel bad for no real reason. They don’t think of themselves as responsible for pain, even if it causes people suffering.
Parke and her tech savvy partner, Blue Perrine, talk to a school teacher who had sent Powers a cake that read, “Fucking bitch.” Perrine grills her on Tweets. She had written, “#DeathTo Jo Powers,” the morning of the murder. The teacher replies that it’s just a game. She was just participating in a hashtag. It doesn’t matter. And besides, did you read the article that Powers wrote?
A clipped and sweary Kelly MacDonald plays Parke as the Scully to her partner’s Mulder. She’s brash, harsh and sceptical that the internet could play such a huge part in people’s lives. In contrast, Perrine understands how real the world of social media can be. The tone is X-Files-y, but the most supernatural element at play are the automated bee drones that end up being the murder weapon.
The threat doesn’t need to be supernatural. What’s chilling is how familiar these offences seem. The next victim, a rapper named Tusk, made fun of one of his young fans on television. The next, a university student, had a picture of her pretending to pee on a war memorial go viral. We’ve seen this kind of thing happen before, seen people get on a plane anonymous and land with a hashtag about them, but we’ve never seen anyone die from it.
And yet, as Parke and Perrine close in on their suspect, they interview a young woman who’d been mobbed online months before the murders. As she talks about her experience, she raises her arm and her sleeve falls down. Her wrists are scarred. “I mean, hands up, I made a mistake,” she says. “But the way that people enjoyed kicking me, that’s what got to me. The casual fun they had. I just felt I couldn’t go on.”
In the real world, after singer Kehlani Parrish attempted suicide, she posted on Instagram, “Social media is the goddam devil.” The problem is that social media doesn’t feel real in the way that a punch or a kick feels real. Using the example that Parke cites at the beginning of the episode, this hate doesn’t feel like the way a husband can hate a wife. It’s amorphous and anonymous, and it can hang like a cloud, something you can’t touch but will still cast a shadow on you. “Hated in the Nation” literalises this pain, but it was already here. Someone else is going to be trending tomorrow and suffering for it. That’s how the internet works.