The man challenging anti-cycling trolls to change their ways

“If someone deletes their comment, that’s success for me,” says Andrew Tierney. “Hopefully, that person will think about what they’re saying in the future.”

Tierney, who goes by the name @cybergibbons online, is part of a new breed of cycling activists. After noticing an increase in the amount of abuse and violent threats on social media directed at people who ride bikes, Tierney decided to take action. He started calling out the posters online, with the result that many deleted their comments or even their accounts.

“If someone says something racist [online], on the whole, people will challenge those views,” he says. “It should be the same for threats made against cyclists; challenge those who make these statements.”

There has been a noticeable increase in virtual threats against cyclists since the Highway Code changes and clarifications have been in the news, Tierney believes, and he has started responding to the most serious ones.

“It was on TikTok that I suddenly thought: ‘Wow, people think it’s socially acceptable to make [comments about harming cyclists]’,” he says. “A user made a comment about harming cyclists if they saw them adhering to one of the new Highway Code rules, and it got lots of likes.”

Getting such a post taken down can be difficult and slow when reported via the tech platforms, but can be easy and swift when contacting the user directly, Tierney says.

He was shocked to discover that many of those making hateful comments use their real names. “You click on their profile picture, and it’s their normal account; there’s no hiding involved,” he says.

“There can be videos of them with their kids, yet they’re making a statement that they want to go out and harm someone, and they think that this is completely acceptable because it’s a comment about cyclists. That genuinely shocked me.”

Tierney has nearly 38,000 followers on Twitter and is a recent returnee to cycling. “I got into cycling again during lockdown. I realised how cycling had changed; it’s now a lot more popular than I remembered from my university days.

“By and large, the cyclists I see on the roads follow the Highway Code, taking the lane where it’s appropriate, for instance. But a lot of drivers seem to take issue with cyclists doing that.

“I started noticing people casually posting on social media that they would run over cyclists next time they see any ‘hogging the road’, even when cyclists taking the lane are doing something that’s completely legal and always has been. That blew my mind.”

Tierney believes poisoning the online well can have real-world effects. “Someone stating on social media, ‘Let’s run over cyclists’ can make other people think it’s acceptable to intimidate cyclists in real life,” he says.

“Some of the hate comments are supposed to be jokes, probably done for likes. But even if it is just a joke to the poster, people reading those comments might be encouraged to harm cyclists in real life.”

He wonders how many close overtakes – so-called punishment passes – are happening soon after reading online comments raging against people riding bikes.

“Many of the most aggressive motorists might have been radicalised online. The belief that [motorists] have more right to be on the road than cyclists isn’t hard to find.”

Many of those posting threat-to-life comments are professional drivers, says Tierney. “They post pictures of their truck or put their employer in their profile. It’s shocking that someone who drives for a living jokes about killing cyclists and does so publicly.”

Tierney’s takedowns involve contacting those spouting the hate, including sending messages to professional drivers. “I remind them that they’re representing their company,” he says.

Offensive posts are often deleted after that contact, but if not, Tierney contacts the companies concerned. “Businesses should be made aware that their employees are threatening to harm people,” he says.

He has no way of knowing if his emails to employers get results because the typical response is that the company is dealing with the complaint internally. Still, comment deletions are normal, and so are full account wipes, or the accounts are subsequently made private.

“People seem to be surprised when you contact them after they’ve made some hateful comment, but I tell them I’m looking at things that have been said in public.”

Tierney says he does not identify or dox people. “There’s been a few accounts where I’ve posted screenshots of the comments made, but I don’t dox; I don’t include the account holder’s real name if they don’t use it online; I don’t think pile-ons help. I don’t harass these people, or want them to be harassed by others,” he says.

“I don’t want to suppress people for having a different opinion; I’ve only contacted people who’ve made direct threats to harm. I’ve gone on social media and found people who are saying: ‘I’m gonna keep a tally of how many cyclists I’ve run over this year.’ I filter down to people making the most serious comments and then ask them whether they really mean what they wrote. This has caused a lot of people to delete comments and caused others to delete their accounts.”

Tierney says many of the most egregious abusers are easy to find making similar comments across multiple platforms.

“It’s common to find that someone will be on Twitter, on Instagram, on TikTok, and on Facebook, using the same [social media] handle and making the same kind of hateful comments. It would be great if everybody challenged these comments when they see them,” Tierney suggests, but he admits this is not for the fainthearted – few of the replies he receives are timorous.

“There is a hardcore who feel like they’re entitled to say they’re going to harm and scare cyclists. I think what I do is a fairly effective way of challenging these people.”

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