So now we know: the great internet troll panic of last summer wasn’t only packed with exaggeration and mythmaking about the dastardly power of such bedroom-bound twitterers; it was actually a complete inversion of the truth about what was happening online.
The story shoved down every British newspaper readers’ throat last July and August was this: vulnerable female commentators and politicians are being harassed, even silenced, by a massive mob of trollish men who have been empowered by centuries of misogyny. The power dynamic, we were told, was one in which privilege-wielding men were harrying and shutting down isolated women who felt ‘utterly powerless’. It was a classic battle between brutish assumed authority and ordinary citizens, mostly female, who wanted simply to express themselves.
The reality? Well, two trolls – not a thousand, or a hundred, or even 10 – had charges brought against them and this week pleaded guilty. And these two trolls, this non-army, these completely insignificant individuals, are being crushed by the full forces of the state and the media. They’ve been named, shamed and demonised across the tabloid press, doggedly pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service and the cops, dragged before courts of law, and now face possible detainment at Her Majesty’s pleasure. What we were told was happening online – that vulnerable women in the media and politics were being silenced by a veritable army of haters – is the polar opposite of what has really happened, which is that influential women, backed by the media, the police and the courts, have successfully silenced two not-very-threatening individuals. Of all the numerous media scare stories of 2013, the troll one has proven to be the most myth-packed and warped.
Last summer, I took part in a Radio 4 debate with the media woman who was on the receiving end of most of the stupid Twitter trollery: Caroline Criado-Perez. She had successfully campaigned to put Jane Austen on the new ten-pound note (as I told her behind the scenes at Radio 4, my choice would have been Sylvia Pankhurst, not Austen), and for doing so she’d been subjected to various horrible tweets.
During the radio discussion, I argued that the national hysteria about trolls was a moral panic which was promoting the evidence-starved idea that the internet is overrun by misogynists exercising a ‘reign of terror’. In truth, it’s likely to be very small numbers of ‘sad, isolated individuals’ who are doing this trolling and we should just ignore them, I argued. Ms Criado-Perez countered that actually large numbers of people are involved in the tsunami of trolling, and far from being sad, isolated individuals, ‘terrifyingly, they’re quite normal men - they’ve got wives, they’ve got children, they’ve got jobs’, she said.