What is the greatest menace to the liberty and liveliness of the internet? Is it, as we’re forever being told, ‘trolls’, those mostly anonymous saddos who live on Twitter and lurk in discussion threads, hurling offensive and sometimes abusive comments at people? Or is it the trollhunters, the self-styled cleansers of internet culture who have marshalled the media, the police, the courts, the prison system and the political class to their mission of exposing trolls and mopping up the online world?
It’s the latter. Trollhunters are the scourge of the internet. Yes, trolls can be annoying, and even scary sometimes. I’ve had my fair share of emailed death threats, discussion threads devoted to telling me what a cock I am, and even a bag of shit with one of my articles in it hand-delivered to my office (old-school trolling). But the trollhunters, from misogyny-policing feminists to the papers that splash photos of trolls across their front pages to the police who arrest them in dawn raids, do something far worse than any vocab-challenged bloke with a grudge and an internet connection could ever hope to achieve. They chill and sanitise the internet, and invite the criminalisation of more and more forms of online speech.
This morning it is reported that Brenda Leyland, a 63-year-old who was suspected of trolling the parents of murdered schoolgirl Madeleine McCann, has been ‘found dead’ in a hotel room. It is thought she committed suicide. If this is true, we may never discover why: as the Samaritans never tire of telling us, there is rarely one single cause to a suicide. But we do know that Ms Leyland’s death followed her exposure as a ‘troll’ by Sky News. A Sky reporter doorstepped her and informed her she was one of ‘dozens’ of trolls whose anonymous online behaviour had been reported to the police by supporters of the McCanns and was now being investigated.
What happened next was blackly ironic: Ms Leyland was trolled. She was, as Anorak magazine described it, ‘monstered’ by the media and by tweeters sympathetic to the McCanns. Images of her made to look like a blood-stained monster spread through Twitter. She was branded old and ugly and a bitch. A Mirror columnist called her a ‘twisted, fucked-up bitch’. The rest of the media was more polite but nonetheless had a field day at the expense of this ‘churchgoing mother-of-two’ and ‘well-spoken middle-class woman’ who was secretly writing ‘vile’ tweets about the McCanns. Her photo appeared everywhere. And so was the troll trolled, the monster monstered, the woman suspected of writing disgusting tweets subjected to disgusting tweets, the witch burnt. A few hours after this tsunami of anti-troll trolling came her way, Ms Leyland was found dead.
The online mob, the giddy, foul-mouthed organisers of the darkly ironic trolling of this alleged troll, are not responsible for Ms Leyland’s death. If she took her own life, it was her decision, her action. But her treatment over the past 48 hours nonetheless shines a harsh light on the new national bloodsport of hunt-the-troll.