The most remarkable thing about the frenzied national handwringing over Twitter trolls is that anybody is taking it seriously. That people are buying into the harebrained idea that a handful of bedroom-bound blokes who tweet insults at women with one hand while doing God knows what with the other really do pose a threat to womankind, the entire internet, and the social fabric itself. It’s time we referred to this fretting over trolls by its real name: a moral panic, as unfounded in fact and motored by irrational fears as any of the moral panics of the twentieth century, whether over black muggers or mods and rockers.
To understand why virtually the entire British media and significant chunks of the political class have become weirdly obsessed with small numbers of trolls who fire vile insults at women, you could do worse than dip back into the late, great Stanley Cohen’s 1972 book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics. An indispensable guide to the modern era’s malarial-like social scares, which come and go like waves of a fever, Cohen’s book popularised the term ‘moral panic’. A moral panic occurs, he said, when ‘a condition, episode, person or group of persons become defined as a threat to societal values and interests’. A moral crusade, fuelled by ‘media sensationalism’, is then launched against these allegedly threatening ‘deviants’, he said, until they loom large in the public mind as ‘folk devils’ whose behaviour poses a threat to public safety or moral norms. In the past, Teddy Boys, football hooligans and drug-taking yoof were elevated to the status of folk devils; today, it’s internet trolls.
Cohen took the clash between mods and rockers in Clacton-on-Sea in 1964 as his case study. He was intrigued at how a small-scale run-in between culturally opposed youths became the subject of mass-media moralising and political condemnation. He examined the excitable language used by the media to describe these fairly mild fisticuffs: ‘orgy’, ‘riot’, ‘siege’, ‘screaming mob’. There was a disconnect, he noted, between the reality of small numbers of youngsters having a bust-up and the media’s depiction of a mass and threatening violent event. And so it is with trolls today. A sober analysis would reveal that threat-making trolls are a rare and pathetic breed, often teenagers or students, sometimes still ensconced in the parental home; yet the media tell us they have womankind ‘under siege’, are exercising a ‘reign of terror’, are ‘killing the internet’, and, like those old mods and rockers, are a ‘mob’.
Cohen referred to the media’s unhinged blowing-up of small numbers of deviant folk into fabric-tearing folk devils as ‘deviation amplification’. There’s been tonnes of that in the handwringing over internet trolls, both in the broadsheets’ editorialising about how these trolls ‘silence women’ (in which case, why can’t I turn on my TV without seeing a female journalist complaining about having been trolled?) and in the tabloids’ naming-and-shaming of the evil insult-makers.
Cohen said that once a folk devil has been fingered as a source of social and moral rot, it isn’t long before the experts are out in force to pontificate about this new deviant sickness at the heart of society and to suggest some social remedies for it, normally some variant of the ‘control culture’, as Cohen called it. ‘Socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions’, he said. And then, he said, the ‘moral barricades’ – that is, the allegedly flimsy barrier between these devilish deviants and the decent society they long to pollute – come to be ‘manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people’.