The twitch-hunting of Kenneth Tong
The man who caused a storm and outraged Rihanna with his pro-anorexia tweets tells spiked why he did it – and why he has no regrets.
Kenneth Tong doesn’t look like a threat to womankind. Sat in the corner of a busy restaurant in Chinatown in London, trendy spectacles perched on his nose, hair moussed skywards, he looks like a normal, fashionable 25-year-old. Yet it seems appearances can be deceptive. For according to the pop megastar Rihanna, no less, this Tong character has helped to kill girls ‘all over the world’. Journalists claim that his words alone could ‘kill some of the girls following [him] on Twitter’. Simon Cowell branded him a ‘village idiot’. He has generated waves of apoplexy in the blogosphere, where he’s referred to as a ‘hideous little creature’.
What exactly has he done, this alleged Yorkshire Ripper of the internet, who can apparently knock a girl dead with 140 characters or less? Well, in January, for a week, he tweeted about the benefits of ‘managed anorexia’. He promoted the virtues of being a size zero, saying such things as ‘to not be thin is a sin’ and ‘to have an imperfect body is to have an imperfect soul’. And for this he was accused of causing anorexia and was subjected to a Twitterstorm of ridicule and denunciation, the like of which hasn’t been seen since Jan Moir said unseemly things about Stephen Gately in the Daily Mail.
Tong has said no to being interviewed by Jeremy Kyle, Grazia, The Sunday Times and others about his week-long outburst of pro-skinny Twittering, but he’s happy to talk to me because I wrote a semi-sympathetic piece about him on my Telegraph blog – by which I mean a piece that did not label him a girl-killer. Looking back on the fury he generated, the self-described Hong Kong playboy who lives off family wealth has no regrets. ‘It was a great social experiment’, he chuckles. ‘It was genius. I owned Twitter for that period.’ Apparently a friend bet him that he couldn’t become famous for a second time (Tong’s first taste of fame was as a contestant on UK Big Brother in 2009), and because Tong ‘loves to gamble’ he took up the challenge. He invented a skinny-obsessed character and ventured on to Twitter to say outrageous things and cause a stir. ‘It was a hoax. And everyone fell for it. They’re the stupid ones, not me.’
Tong-haters are sceptical about his claim that it was a hoax. Some suspect that this wealthy young man who doesn’t work (instead spending his days gambling, going to the gym and meeting his celeb friends) really does hate flabby folk and would prefer the planet to be populated by stick-thin, hollow-cheeked ‘beauties’. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter if his size-zero proselytising was serious or not. Because as he himself points out, the decisive thing in this controversy was not the actual content of his tweets but the ‘ridiculous backlash’ against him. It was that which brought his tweets to a global audience and gave him what he wanted – ‘a second shot of fame, which means I won my bet’, he says, wearing a delighted grin. ‘By talking about me, they made me, they legitimised me’, he says of the Twitterers, hacks and celebs who had fits of rage and in the process made Tong web-famous.
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This is always the case with self-righteous Twitterstorms, whether they’re aimed at Jan Moir for criticising a tragic Boyzone singer or Melanie Phillips for having a pop at homosexuals: intolerant Twitterers’ outrage brings the very thing they are outraged by to a wider audience, ironically increasing its allegedly poisonous impact on public debate. D’oh! Having turned Tong into a Twitter hate figure, the offended army then demanded that he be expelled from Twitter forever. They launched what I have previously labelled a ‘twitch hunt’. Singer Lily Allen said he should be ‘thrown off Twitter’. People signed a Twitition – a Twitter-based petition – calling for his account to be erased. ‘What these people don’t realise is that [in calling] for me to be thrown off Twitter, they made me better known’, says Tong. ‘And they made me more determined to wind them up. They fed this story.’
It was this part of the ‘ridiculous backlash’, the semi-Orwellian demand that one man’s witterings be scrubbed from history, that most shocked Tong. ‘You can’t limit what people say. Where would it stop?’, he asks. The anti-Tong fury exposed the speed with which a Twitterstorm can turn into a clamour for censorship. The notion that his words could have killed ‘some of the girls following [him] on Twitter’ was a refashioning of media-effects theory – the deeply conservative idea that certain words must be tightly controlled because they might induce wicked or warped behaviour in those who read them. And there’s currently a Twitter campaign to force Tong to make a donation to an anti-anorexia charity. It’s a PC yet brazen attempt to rehabilitate penance: where Catholics must say seven Hail Marys for sinning against God, Tong is told to offer up cash for sinning against liberal orthodoxies on anorexia.
My favourite intolerant response to Tong appeared in the Guardian, where the girlfriend of Paul Chambers – the man who was arrested for making a joke on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood airport in Nottingham – said it is okay to make jests about terrorism but not about anorexia. ‘Who makes these rules?!’ asks Tong. It’s a good question. Maybe these shamelessly self-appointed guardians of public morality and Twitter-etiquette should compile a list of Things It Is Okay To Make Fun Of. Tong says it should be the other way round: seeming to contradict what he said earlier about the problems of limiting speech, he tells me it’s okay to say what you like about size zero but not terrorism: ‘That really is dangerous. People should think carefully before doing that.’ I disagree. If the web really is to be a free space, then people should be as much at liberty to joke about detonating bombs as they are to say ‘fat girls are ugly’, however pointless both types of wittering might be. But Twitter is a fickle friend of free speech. The Twitterati will defend someone like Chambers yet throw Tong to the wolves (otherwise known as Twitter’s all-powerful moderators).
What these touchy Twitterers really love is the sensation of feeling morally outraged. They trawl for and then retweet anything that upsets them, like wired-up, modern-day versions of the purple-rinsed brigade that once wrote letters to Esther Rantzen, getting an adrenalin rush from the act of mass complaining. No view that runs counter to theirs can be tolerated; all must be punished by erasure or demands for financial recompense for hurt caused. Yes, Tong tweeted some daft things about size zero and maybe he was serious, who knows? (Halfway through our chat he tells me the only attractive ‘fat woman’ he can think of is ‘the one from Mad Men’.) And yet he sounds infinitely more sensible than his censorious haters when he says: ‘I absolutely do not accept that my tweets could kill people. It’s a ludicrous concept.’
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.