Troll-hunters – please stop exploiting the death of Hannah Smith

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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Topics Politics

Most people will look upon the suicide of Hannah Smith, a British 14-year-old girl who was bullied by users of ask.fm, as a terrible tragedy. Not the self-elected troll-hunters of Twitter, though. They see it as an opportunity – an opportunity to boost their calls for the internet to be cleaned up and more tightly policed.

Almost as soon as Hannah’s grieving father claimed that his daughter committed suicide because she was targeted by cyberbullies, cynical media campaigners against ‘trolls’ were leaping upon the tragedy in order to exploit it for censorious ends.

News reports put Hannah’s terrible experiences alongside the Twitter abuse meted out to TV classicist Mary Beard and other prominent women, as if they were one and the same thing. We were told ‘Hannah’s death comes amid a growing row about the policing of social media after rape and even bomb threats were made to high-profile female personalities’. Journalists claimed that Hannah’s death proves that online slurs or threats are more than ‘just abuse’ and now Twitter and others must ‘do more to protect users from bullying and harm’. Meanwhile, Twitter’s female ragers against trolls have been tweeting about Hannah’s death, in between tweets about their own experiences of 140-character abuse.

In the Guardian, Hadley Freeman cited Hannah’s death at the end of a piece about all the abuse on Twitter that female journalists receive. Hannah’s death is a ‘tragic reminder that online abuse is a serious problem’, she said. There’s something quite grotesque about this – the use of a teenager’s death as the explosive pay-off in an article about the alleged sufferings of female hacks on Twitter; the marshalling of a dead girl to boost the self-righteous campaign to have Twitter purged of its anti-feminist trolls.

This unsightly rush to elevate a tragic, mercifully isolated suicide to the level of a catch-all symbol – a symbol of how rotten and dangerous the internet has allegedly become – is not only cynical; it is also dangerous. Because it promotes the idea that online abuse can directly cause suicide, even that suicide is a logical response to being bullied, which could potentially encourage other youngsters to pursue a similar ‘solution’ – suicide reporting is notorious for nurturing copycat acts.

In reality, as the Samaritans have pointed out many times, suicide is much more complex than simply being a reaction to a terrible event or experience. ‘Although a catalyst may appear to be obvious, suicide is never the result of a single factor or event and is likely to have several inter-related causes’, says the Samaritans. Questions such as emotional state of mind, depressive tendencies, lack of real-world social network and so on are also key to the potential occurrence of suicide. It is perfectly understandable that Hannah’s father should want to trace his daughter’s suicide to the unwieldiness of the internet – he must desperately desire a simple explanation for what happened. But for anti-troll journalists to do likewise smacks of the worst kind of ghoulish opportunism and suicide-exploitation.

I can’t believe this needs to be pointed out, but there is a very important difference between Hannah Smith and the female journalists who have been abused on Twitter. The former is a child; the latter are adults. The former may possibly (though we don’t know for sure) have needed some advice and guidance on using the internet and also some protection from her cyberbullies; the latter are surely grown-up enough to know when to block or switch off or simply how to deal with those who abuse them. Using a 14-year-old girl’s death as a ‘reminder’ that the internet should be more tightly policed to make female journalists’ lives easier – this is a new low.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics