Hypocrisy and the Inner Troll
I find myself in a moral bind about internet trolls. The story of Mrs Brenda Leyland, who was found dead in a Leicestershire hotel the other day after having been “unmasked” by a Sky News reporter as one of a number of people posting abusive tweets about the parents of missing toddler Madeleine McCann is both sad and instructive.
Before the internet, would-be trolls had limited outlets for whatever drove them to say nasty things about people. Gossip in the pub and in the secret recesses of the home would usually reach a small and geographically limited audience. Poison pen-letters, crafted with cut out letters to avoid detection would only go to as many letterboxes as the perpetrator had the time and energy to reach.
These days it’s possible to hide behind an online identity and reach millions of Twitter users in seconds it takes to write a hundred characters and press a button.
As a Huffington Post contributor noted here, the motives and states of mind of people we refer to as trolls are many and varied. Mrs Leyland, apparently, wouldn’t have recognised the description of herself as a troll. She considered herself to be a member of a community campaigning to expose some kind of conspiracy related to the McCann case. So one man’s troll is evidently another man’s conspiracy theorist, freedom fighter, holy warrior, animal lover, member of UKIP and goodness knows what else.
I’m only joking about UKIP by the way. Or perhaps I’m not, because what seems to drive many UKIP voters is exactly the same set of darker emotions that lie behind so many of those sour and abusive tweets: envy, anger, disappointment, alienation and hatred.
In the United Kingdom we have laws that prohibit abuse of various kinds – most notably racist abuse, expressions of religious hatred and threatening behaviour. So it’s entirely appropriate that the police should make efforts to track down and prosecute those who break the law. But the law is incapable of preventing gratuitous abuse that falls outside its boundaries, and there are enough grey areas to make it difficult for police and prosecutors to apply the law consistently. And where the criminal law doesn’t provide a remedy, the civil courts often allow suits for libel, as Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons discovered when she tweeted about allegations of paedophilia on the part of a prominent political figure.
So my moral bind is this.
Leaving aside seriously disturbed individuals who spew forth their venom for no superficially apparent reason, is it not in our interest to know that there are racists, religious extremists – in fact, extremists of all varieties – in our midst? Are we better off because people no longer feel the need to keep their opinions confined to the pub, the kitchen and the place of worship?
The British security services would undoubtedly say that the social media offers them clues about the people who threaten us with their posts from Syria and Iraq. And the Saudi intelligence directorate would probably feel the same about the host of poisonous tweets emanating from that country every day. Two recent examples in Saudi Arabia particularly come to mind. 900 comments about the Saudi girl who was caught on video cheering her team in the UAE – women are not allowed to attend matches in the Kingdom, and her presence at this match unleashed a torrent of abuse. And then there was the 12-year-old who performed a poem for the Minister of Education and was rewarded with a fatherly kiss on her head, which prompted a similar reaction.
On the other hand, do we want to encourage the manipulators, the recruiters and the poisonous pack hunters who flock to pour abuse on public figures like Mary Beard? And are public figures who take to the internet with their views fair game, within the confines of the law?
Mrs Leyland’s case, along with the numerous examples of successful prosecution of online trolls, shows that anonymity is something of an illusion, so perhaps all those except people and organisations that are expert in covering their tracks will start to become more circumspect about what they post, just as life is becoming increasingly risky for paedophiles who buy, sell and swap their stuff online.
The internet was never a Garden of Eden, even though it might have seemed so in the golden days when we first discovered the joys of email, WYSIWYG and hypertext. As soon as it became possible to transact, we realised that the net could be used for bad things as well as good. The social media has merely served to bring that neutral canvas to half of the world’s population.
And anyway, how pure are we who have never posted an offensive tweet in our lives? Whether or not we use twitter as our mouthpiece, or content ourselves with sounding off among friends, an inner troll lurks within all of us. Is it less reprehensible to say nasty things about people behind their backs than to spew the poison over the net? Poison, after all is still poison. Within a circle of friends, it just spreads more slowly.
The fact is that we humans have always yielded to the temptation to say and do nasty things when we judge that we won’t have to face the consequences. People like Hitler and Stalin got others to do their dirty work for them. Personally, neither hurt a fly once they were in power, and both deliberately avoided sight of the human destruction they unleashed. At a more mundane level, how many of us who own a car have never honked our horns in anger or raised a finger at the behaviour of other drivers, knowing that the other person is unlikely to stop and take a baseball bat to us? How many of us have pulled out of a house purchase or some commercial transaction, knowing that we will not have to explain ourselves to the other party, who might suffer considerable financial loss as a result? How many bosses have the courage to fire people face to face, rather than leaving the dirty work to HR, or to George Clooney’s professional firing expert in Up in the Air?
Unfortunately for those who take to Twitter to enhance their careers, gratify their egos, sell their products or promote their politics, there will always be people emboldened to disparage, insult and hurt them, and sometimes to tell untruths about them. Anyone stupid enough not to realise that that’s the deal will find out quickly enough.
The rest of us who look on and tut-tut piously about all the sad and twisted individuals whom we call trolls should first look at ourselves, and ask how successfully we curb our own inner trolls.
Let’s encourage the law enforcers to do their jobs, and, when judging those who aren’t breaking the law, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.