Troll-hunters are the real menace to the internet
Yes, online trolls often ruin debates and annoy the hell out of people. But it is their censorious critics in the media who truly harm internet culture.
Anyone who has spent any time on the internet, which is pretty much everyone, will know that there are a lot of World Wide Weirdos out there. Loitering in online discussion forums or skulking in the Twittersphere, they’re always ready to rage, primed to bash out a 140-character screed or INAPPROPRIATELY CAPITALISED PARAGRAPH on why everything in the whole world sucks, especially YOU. If you’re lucky – and by lucky I obviously mean unlucky – they will email you directly to tell you you’re a cunt, that your teeth should meet their cricket bat, and that the reason you are so stupid is because you were raped by a priest. That has happened to me – no, not being raped by a priest, but finding those messages stinking up my inbox.
That’s life in the internet age, I suppose, and yes, it can be annoying (especially when you see that there are 700 comments on an article you’ve written, but then discover that 692 of them were written by the same three people arguing until four in the morning over whether ‘ZaNuLabour’ or the ‘ConDems’ were the most evil government). Yet it turns out that, amazingly, there is something even more irritating on the internet than these so-called trolls. And it’s the troll-hunters, the celebs, commentators and coppers who have made it their business to chase down trolls, expose them to public ridicule, and sometimes even haul them before a judge. Okay, a troll can sometimes ruin a half-decent online debate or dent a journalist’s sense of self-worth by sending him a snotty, borderline obscene message *sniffle* – but that’s nothing compared with the potential impact that troll-hunting is having on the free flow of ideas and argument on the web.
Trolls – defined by Urban Dictionary as people who ‘post a deliberately provocative message to a message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument’ – are rarely out of the news. From the 17-year-old twat on Twitter who sent stupid messages to British diving champ Tom Daley to the fashion among celebrities for ‘confronting one’s troll’, trolling is a hot topic. The idea that the internet is awash with spectacularly uncouth provocateurs is gaining ground. Much of the commentary on the trouble with trolls could easily double up as a rough draft for a movie about a Martian invasion, with its claims that these message-board botherers are ‘besieging our culture’ and ‘invading’ the internet.
Inevitably, following the pleas from everyone from MPs to celebrities to hilariously spineless journalists that Something Should Be Done about trolls, the law is now sticking its nose in. Louise Mensch, chick-lit novelist turned part-time politician turned full-time wife of Metallica’s manager, demanded action against trolls after she was bombarded with threatening messages by a 60-year-old freak in a beard. Anti-troll action is already being taken. Earlier this year a Welsh student called Liam Stacey was imprisoned for two months for trolling the then very ill footballer Fabrice Muamba. Tom Daley’s troll was arrested in a dawn raid, because apparently sending 140-character insults to a pretty diver is as lethal as having a bomb in your shed or a Kalashnikov under your bed, the sort of things that normally earn one a knock on the door from the Old Bill at 6am. And now we’re informed that Britain’s Director of Public Prosecutions is planning to issue ‘guidelines’ for prosecutors on when ‘criminal charges should be brought’ in relation to trolling incidents.
Well, I can save the DPP the bother of having ‘a series of roundtable meetings with campaigners, media lawyers, academics and law enforcement bodies’ by telling him right now when prosecutions should be brought against people for writing things on the internet – never. It is none of the law’s business what you or I or the unbelievably annoying hoggers of online message boards say. Thought, speech, belief, debate: these are not arenas in which the state should have authority. You might not like what people say on the internet, or how they say it, but tough. If I went into a bookshop and tore up all the tomes I find annoying or offensive, half the shop would be in ruins – but I don’t do that because a) people would think I was mad, and b) I recognise that freedom of speech means being surrounded by, and sometimes subjected to, ideas or outlooks that make you feel uncomfortable, even nauseous. That’s actually one of the best things about free speech – it stops you becoming intellectually complacent or smugly dogmatic by opening your eyes and ears to other, sometimes outlandish ways of thinking. If a bookshop, or the internet, was restructured to make it agreeable to my tastes alone, I’m sure I’d like it for a while, but in the long term my brain, or what John Stuart Mill called my ‘mental and moral powers’, would become knackered through lack of exercise. I’d basically turn into an idiot.
Many troll-hunters claim they are only calling for civility, not conformism; they aren’t censuring people for their views only for their sometimes OTT vulgarities and borderline harassment. This is highly disingenuous. Because one of the most striking things about the troll-hunting lobby is how much it conflates irrational prejudice with what it considers to be undesirable political views, treating both as things that ought to be cleaned up and potentially banged up. So a Guardian columnist recently wrote about ‘Islamophobic’ trolling on the internet, which he said includes everything from online racists referring to Muslims as ‘goat-fuckers’ to ‘progressives’ prejudice’, such as when trolls ‘slam Islam as oppressive of gay and women’s rights’. Hold on – branding Muslims ‘goat-fuckers’ is clearly just a bonkers prejudice (though even that should not be banned), whereas criticising Islam for being repressive is the expression of a political view. In depicting certain, un-PC critiques of Islam as ‘trolling’, troll-hunters explicitly attempt to delegitimise political views they find distasteful.
Likewise, last year a group of feminist writers launched a campaign to tackle ‘misogynistic trolling’ on the internet, which apparently includes everything from ‘threats of rape’ to comments that are ‘strongly and personally antagonistic towards feminism’. Here, something that is potentially the business of the law – the threat of rape – is lumped together with something that is an entirely legitimate intellectual pursuit: the ridicule of feminism. Increasingly, everyone from Louise Mensch’s emailing stalker (who really was a threatening harasser) to people who simply spend their days in online discussion boards ‘denying’ climate change can be branded a ‘troll’. What we’re witnessing is a pretty Orwellian conflation of potentially physical menace with unpopular political views, the mashing together of irrational harassment with the expression of a political outlook, so that it all becomes ‘trolling’. When even political positions like ‘progressive prejudice’ or ‘antagonism towards feminism’ can be called trolling, it seems pretty clear that a deep and profound censoriousness is at work here, and that the invitation to the DPP to clarify when people may be prosecuted for spouting off on the internet is an even more worrying prospect than we thought.
There is a really weird inversion of reality in the trolling debate. Celebrities with massive public platforms and journalists with prominent soapboxes from which to proclaim their beliefs are depicting themselves as the poor little victims of the mob, effectively, of ordinary people who, horror of horrors, now have the ability to express themselves instantly. It all rather echoes the upsurge in intolerant handwringing that followed the development of the printing press, when God-botherers in pointy hats effectively said: ‘You mean the little people will be able to read books?!’ Today, troll-hunters are really saying, ‘You mean I have to put up with the little people telling me what they think, being abusive, and expressing thoughts that me and my friends have agreed are obnoxious?!’ Yes, that’s right – you do.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.