A while back I did a piece about patent trolls, the companies that enforce patents in an aggressive or opportunistic way, with no intention of making or marketing the patented invention. But there is another kind of troll that is much more in the public eye – the internet troll. The internet is apparently teeming with them and no-one is immune from their bile. Caroline Criado-Perez was threatened with rape for suggesting that Jane Austen be put on the Bank Of England £10 note. More recently there is something called Gamergate, a controversy, which I don’t fully understand, in video game culture involving sexism and misogyny.
This might give the impression that this is a question of misogyny. But men too are frequently the victims. One famous case involved Real Madrid keeper Iker Casillas, who used Instagram to post a photo of his wife, Spanish TV presenter Sara Carbonero, and their baby boy, Martín, at the beach. A troll commented:
“Throw it in the water and see if it floats, mole!” The word “mole” refers to the rumours that Casillas revealed dressing room secrets to the press under Mourinho’s reign.
Why do people behave this way? Psychologists talk about the Gyges Effect, a phenomenon whereby internet users experience a loss of inhibition that is not present in normal face-to-face communication. The name comes from the story of the Ring of Gyges, which Plato wrote about nearly two and a half millennia ago. The shepherd, Gyges, discovers a ring that allows him to become invisible at will. He uses the protection this offers to infiltrate the royal household, seduce the queen, assassinate the king and take over the kingdom. Anonymity can make even the most moral of people act in an unscrupulous way. We can see this clearly in the case of trolling. Any empathy is turned off; there is not an actual human being at the end of the stream of insults.
We live in an age of vox pop, where everyone has their say. On the telly it tends to be inane, but harmless. Online participation is a different beast altogether. Websites like having their readers make comments. For one thing, it drives traffic there. I sometimes regret not making more effort on the comments part of this blog. But I am busy during the week and don’t always respond to what readers have posted. However, there is a dark side to allowing carte blanche to readers.
The most dramatic case in recent times has been that of Brenda Leyland. The 62-year old woman was found dead in a hotel, after being doorstepped by Sky News reporter Martin Brunt about her Twitter activity, which involved 4,625 tweets sent over a period of four years about the Madeleine McCann case. She was undoubtedly obsessed, and her ideas about the McCanns and some kind of conspiracy were outlandish. But does that make her a troll? The trolls I have seen were not of the threatening variety. Now it was the Sky reporter who was being blamed for Leyland’s suicide. That seems to be a gross simplification; there may well have been other questions in this troubled woman’s life.
This case raises the question of free speech. In a piece in Spiked, Brendan O’Neil takes on the trollhunters:
Trollhunters are the scourge of the internet. Yes, trolls can be annoying, and even scary sometimes. I’ve had my fair share of emailed death threats, discussion threads devoted to telling me what a cock I am, and even a bag of shit with one of my articles in it hand-delivered to my office (old-school trolling). But the trollhunters, from misogyny-policing feminists to the papers that splash photos of trolls across their front pages to the police who arrest them in dawn raids, do something far worse than any vocab-challenged bloke with a grudge and an internet connection could ever hope to achieve. They chill and sanitise the internet, and invite the criminalisation of more and more forms of online speech.
Trolling may be the price we have to pay for a free internet. I have never been trolled and I do find it rather depressing the depths to which some people will sink. But probably the best advice is summed up in the slogan, Please do not feed the trolls. Iker Casillas famously got responded to the troll:
“You must be a huge son of a bitch to write that. I hope you have enough shame to think for a few minutes about what you just said, arsehole!” It is a natural response, but an unwise. I thing he should take a leaf out of classicist Mary Beard’s book. The Cambridge University professor was trolled by former public schoolboy Oliver Rawlings. The 20-year-old tweeted the following:
Beard responded by retweeting Rawlings’s comment, shaming the troll. Rawlings recently found a job and Beard has expressed her satisfaction:
“I am very, very pleased he has got a job. Oliver made a stupid mistake, he was brave enough to apologise, and that is the end of the matter to me. Young people do some very stupid things. I think we can give them a second chance. I have now put this behind me and I shall watch Oliver’s career with interest.”