Online snitches – the real plague of the internet

The moral panic over online trolls grinds on…

Last week, a man in Scotland was probed by police for making dark jokes about terminally ill footballer Fernando Ricksen. Then, in a more high-profile case, two men were arrested on Monday for making ‘offensive comments’ on Twitter about Mikaeel Kular, the three-year-old Scottish child who was found dead in Fife last Friday. Each of these so-called trolls was arrested after their posts were reported to the police by other social-media users.

These cases have led to renewed speculation about what sort of person posts such tasteless things online and what the recent flurry of trolling may reveal about society at large. But there is another question that has gone unasked: what type of person grasses on people for saying things they find offensive about people they don’t even know?

The online snitch is not the antidote to the online troll; he is the flipside of the same coin. Indeed, online snitches pursue their targets with the same unflinching obsession as online trolls. Online snitches repost offending comments and encourage others to share, submit and express their outrage, some even campaigning to make the troll ‘famous’ for being offensive. Like the trolls, snitches express the same egotism and desire for attention and validation, only they want to be validated for their pious outrage rather than their ability to push buttons. 

This has a negative impact, not least for those people directly affected by trolling. Indeed, if online snitches actually cared about those targeted by online trolling, they should ignore such trolling. Instead, the actions of such people increase the exposure of offensive online posts. By engaging with trolls and, in many cases, reporting them to the police, snitches turn small, often unnoticed incidents of trolling into full-blown media stories, making it much more likely that those affected by trolling – such as the family of Mikaeel Kular – will become aware of the offensive posts.

However, a more worrisome development is the impact the online snitches are having on how speech is policed online. The judge presiding over the trial of Matthew Wood, who was jailed for three months for making ‘abhorrent’ jokes about the then missing five-year-old girl April Jones on Facebook, referred to the public outrage caused by Wood’s actions as justification for his sentence. Thus, by broadcasting their sanctimonious outrage, a minority of people online are creating a precedent by which all of our online speech will now be policed.

The online troll and the online snitch are not wholly different creatures: they come from the same internet swamp. The difference is that trolls don’t actually matter, their attention-seeking outbursts have no meaning outside of the online world. The snitch, however, has a far greater and more dangerous impact. In their sanctioning of state intervention into speech, online snitches are facilitating the erosion of freedom of speech – and cheering it all the way.

Rob Harries is a writer and researcher based in London.

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