Twitter trolls: a gold medal for overreaction

The Tom Daley case should teach us that there are better ways to deal with online abuse than arresting idiotic teens.

The first week of the Olympics won’t be remembered for an avalanche of Team GB gold medals. Or for Michael Phelps owning the swimming pool. Or even for the widely predicted transport chaos in the capital. None of those things came to pass. It will, however, be remembered for the rows of empty seats and the phenomenon of Twitter trolling. In the past, the integrity of the Games has been threatened by political boycotts and drugs scandals. It’s a sign of our illiberal times that inappropriate tweeting is the big scourge of London 2012.

One of the iconic images of Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening ceremony was world-wide web founder Tim Berners-Lee tweeting: ‘This is for everyone.’ Stirring stuff. However, it is pretty clear that the ‘everyone’ in question doesn’t include Twitter trolls. The zero-tolerance approach to inappropriate tweeting was evident before the Olympic cauldron was lit. In June, two Australian swimmers were reprimanded for posting photos of themselves brandishing firearms on Facebook and Twitter. Nick D’Arcy and Kenrick Monk were banned from using social media and told they would be sent home immediately after their events. According to Swimming Australia, the gun pictures they posted constituted ‘inappropriate content’. I’m not sure what Olympic shooting competitors are supposed to make of this. Or members of the armed forces. But let’s not quibble. We don’t want kids asking Santa for shotguns on their Christmas wish-lists, do we?

Since the Games started, two competitors have been expelled by their national associations for un-PC tweets. First to go was Greek triple-jumper Voula Papachristou, who tweeted a tasteless joke about African immigrants. She was followed by Swiss footballer Michel Morganella after he posted a tweet saying he wanted to beat up Koreans and that they were a bande de trisos (bunch of mongs). Now, I’m not condoning these nasty tweets, but let’s not pretend that the Olympics is some kind of international inclusion festival. The vindictive doping allegations aimed at Chinese swimming sensation Ye Shiwen show that anti-foreigner sentiment has a mainstream incarnation. The widespread insinuations that the Chinese aren’t playing by the doping rules is, in many ways, just the acceptable face of trolling.

The crusade against abusive tweeting has now shifted its focus to the general public. Last week, the celebrity supporters of Paul Chambers were cheering his successful appeal against a conviction for posting a joke on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire. There was, however, a notable absence of celebrity sympathy for the 17-year-old in Weymouth who was arrested for trolling Tom Daley, the poster boy of British diving. After Daley had failed to win a medal in the synchronised diving, he received an abusive tweet from someone using the tag @Rileyy_69 which said: ‘You let your dad down I hope you know that’ - a rather tasteless reference to Daley’s father Rob, who died of cancer last year.

The concept of ‘trolling’ is essentially the rebranding of what, in my day, used to be known as ‘being rude’. @Rileyy_69’s tweets were certainly puerile and unpleasant. But do we really want to live in a society where being rude is an arrestable offence? Anyone who is familiar with those corners of Twitter inhabited by football fans will know that what we call ‘trolling’ is pretty much the lingua franca of the medium. It’s the online manifestation of terrace banter. I’m not suggesting that trading abuse is pleasant or edifying - it’s often coarse and vile. But arresting someone for name-calling is completely over the top. Just as it was ludicrous to take Paul Chambers’ joke as a serious terrorist threat, it’s equally absurd to take @Rileyy_69’s puerile threats seriously. When a teenager threatens to ‘drown’ an Olympic diver, such comments really should be treated with a pinch of salt, not a police investigation.

No doubt the police took action in this instance because of Tom Daley’s ‘national treasure’ status. As comedian Frankie Boyle quipped: ‘You can troll Tom Daley’s diving partner and nobody’ll give a fuck.’ However, the arrest of Daley’s abuser is not an isolated case of over-zealous coppers with nothing better to do than nick foul-mouthed teenagers. We are increasingly seeing abusive tweeters investigated by the police. The outpouring of sympathy for Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed and almost died during a game earlier this year, swiftly turned into a witch-hunt against student Liam Stacey who was jailed for 56 days for drunkenly posting offensive tweets about the Bolton midfielder. Stacey’s conduct was clearly idiotic and crass, but acting like a dickhead should not be a criminal offence.

How should we deal with Twitter trolls? Well there are plenty of informal ways, none of which involve the police. You can develop an old-fashioned thick skin and just ignore the abuse. You can use the block button on Twitter. You can give as good as you get – something many of us learned to do in school playgrounds. Or else you can, as Daley himself did, retweet the message and invite the hater to be ‘counter-trolled’ by your followers. British weightlifter Zoe Smith was called a ‘lesbian’ and a ‘bloke’ by abusive tweeters and she also responded by retweeting and letting her followers retaliate. The drawback of retweeting is that it gives these losers a degree of notoriety they wouldn’t have enjoyed had they simply been ignored. However, it’s better that people find their own informal ways of dealing with name-calling on Twitter without inviting the long arm of the law to intervene. Like the world wide web, free speech is for everyone.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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