Beware the celebrity
Thin-skinned celebs whining about being bullied by internet ‘trolls’ pave the way for online censorship.
Earlier this year, Twitter announced it had over 140million users firing out one billion tweets every three days. Rather than just shouting at the telly, many thousands of people are now tweeting their thoughts about every aspect of it to the world.
For the first time, public figures can get a massive amount of public feedback on their performances in real time. Their thousands, sometimes millions, of followers tweet their thoughts to them. And they can easily do a search for their name and read about what the twitterverse makes of them to a degree that would sate the vanity of even the most narcissistic of ‘slebs. Some of it, doubtless, is very flattering. Some of it is probably food for thought. And some of it - shock horror! - can be pretty rude.
This has led to a phenomenon that has been dubbed the rise of the celebrity ‘Twitter Quitter’, where increasing numbers of public figures sign off for good because they dislike what’s being said about them by so-called ‘trolls’. There is no denying some of it is nasty. Little Britain star Matt Lucas quit after a teenager tweeted a horrible joke about the death of his former partner. Football pundit Stan Collymore is said to be thinking of leaving after claiming to receive between 150 to 200 abusive messages a day. And Richard Bacon, a BBC presenter, has recently made a documentary about the experiences that led him to close down his account.
Alongside the Twitter Quitters, however, some of the Twitterati have recently started taking another approach: witness the rise of the celebrity troll-hunters. Not dissimilar to the recent cult Norwegian film The Troll Hunter, where ultraviolet lights are shone on trolls to turn them to stone, this new breed of Billy Goats Gruff has decided to try to fight back by putting the Twitter trolls under the media spotlight and exposing them.
Leading the herd is Conservative MP Louise Mensch. Last week, she became the Sun’s hero of the week for shaming trolls who tweeted ‘the most vile, misogynistic abuse’ at her following her performance as part of the select committee inquiry into phone hacking. Mensch ‘favourited’ the abusive tweets, and used BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, alongside other media outlets, to discuss the abuse she’d experienced.
At the weekend, a finalist for BBC talent show The Voice, Ruth Brown, also spoke out about the abuse she’d received on Twitter. Alongside being called an ‘ugly fat cow’ and a ‘fat wasp’, she has also complained about ‘jibes of a racial nature’. Brown said in an interview that she had at first ‘cried’ about the comments but decided to speak out to ‘to encourage other people to fight out against the bullies’.
A forerunner of these Twitter troll-hunters is the presenter of Channel 4 gameshow Deal or No Deal, Noel Edmonds, who was alerted by a company that monitors his reputation online to a ‘Just for fun’ Facebook page encouraging users to kill him. He decided, however, not to snitch to the police, but instead to track down this ‘troll’, who turned out to be a PhD student living in Kent. As Edmonds put it in a widely reported interview: ‘I could see there was someone young behind this and I didn’t want to see that person’s life ruined with a criminal record and I thought there had to be a more positive way to get a resolution than going to the police. I wanted to resolve this face-to-face.’
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But even if celebrities themselves don’t call the cops on their trolls, then there are often many willing to do so on their behalf. While Mensch thought her abusers had done nothing illegal, it has been announced that police will be taking her Twitter trolls to court. And police are also looking into the ‘racist jibes’ about Brown, after having been alerted to them by BBC executives who deemed the tweets to be ‘much more serious and potentially illegal’.
That the police are looking into such cases is hardly surprising given recent clampdowns on speech online. Most notable was the 21-year-old student, Liam Stacey, who was imprisoned for 56 days earlier in the year for writing abusive comments about Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba who fell ill during an FA Cup match. This followed 19-year-old Azhar Ahmed being arrested and charged for a ‘racially aggravated public-order offence’ after posting an angry rant about six British soldiers killed while on duty in Afghanistan. And last year, a number of young people were given harsh sentences simply for suggesting on Facebook that their ‘friends’ should take part in the riots that took place across England last August.
While they may not be snitching to the police themselves, in the current censorious climate, celebrities who expose trolls are often unwittingly inviting the authorities to intervene. Some of the abuse that celebrities, and others, experience online is undeniably horrid. And it is not to say it should go unchallenged or always be ignored (although in many cases, depriving trolls of attention and just getting a thicker skin is likely to be the best approach). But there are more important issues at stake than thin-skinned celebrities feeling bullied by anonymous teenagers online.
The right to be offensive needs to hold for even the most obnoxious internet trolls. Because either we all have free speech, or none of us do. If we permit the state to decide what people can or cannot say – and, in doing so, what we the public can or cannot hear – then this fundamental democratic freedom is eroded. The state’s attack on freedom of speech online is immeasurably more harmful than the abuse from internet trolls, sat on their sofas, tweeting nasty things about people on the telly.
Any celebrity who really wanted to be heroic would quit the troll hunting and make a stand for free speech instead.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.