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Wednesday 8th January 2014


Ah, the internet. Spreading so much knowledge and so much stupidity and making it difficult to see which is which. Sometimes it feels like it might be a tool that could unite the human race, allowing us to communicate with anyone in the world, bypassing our leaders and creating a brotherhood of man, then at others it feels like it's just an insult machine gun, allowing us to spray our shit over as many people as possible in the shortest possible time.

The utterly depressing story about a woman who has done nothing except get a writer on a bank note and then as a result gets bombarded with death and rape threats became even more depressing when you got to see two of the people who had done it. Who knows if they are representative of all Twitter trolls, but I suspect that a lot of them are like this: impotent, drunk, stupid, tragic or with mental issues of their own. This is not in anyway to try to excuse what has happened or to dismiss the abuse that women have to put up with on a daily basis on various levels. It's just that when you see the people behind the threats - most of which are too horrific to be mentioned in news reports (though this balanced article gives you a better idea) - it's hard not to pity them and wonder if education and proper mental health treatments are more appropriate responses than imprisoning such dimwits. 

Then again, whoever you are, it's illegal to make such threats and you should be punished. But the whole thing just makes me sad. Sad for the person who has had to endure that abuse and sad for the people who've abused her. It just feels like everyone has lost. Twitter is full of such bandwagon jumping, someone is the object of disgust or anger or confusion or prejudice and human beings being what they are, loads of them just get on board and start having a go, even when they (as in the case of Isabella Sorley) don't even know what the person they are abusing has actually done or who they are.

I experienced this a little bit (without as far as I remember any actual threats of violence) when I had suggested that people should think about whether they should use disablist language (and I didn't even say that they shouldn't use it, just that they should think about it) and was subjected to at least 48 hours of constant insults, largely from people who had no idea who I was or what I'd actually said and who had decided what I thought and what I represented (political correctness gone mad) without bothering to find out the truth. Thanks to my job I am used to being abused and criticised, but even I found this quite a wearing experience, which ultimately caused me to shed a few tears and no one was threatening to mutilate my genitals or cum on my eyeballs.

I have also experienced vilification from liberals and feminists for jokes I have made, again with at least an element of misinterpretation and kneejerk reaction. Indignant fury is stirred up very easily on Twitter and it often comes from a snap judgement or someone marshalling their little army of followers and we could all do with taking a step back and trying to find the facts (or at least the context) before joining the assault. The safety in numbers might make some people prone to pushing things too far or playing up to their friends.

Are all internet trolls like these two sad human beings? Possibly not, but I think it might actually be helpful to picture them as being like this. Or if you get any abuse from anyone just to tweet them back a picture of John Nimmo's confused face. It might be the greatest deterrent to trolls there is, letting them know that you're assuming it is they who have a problem and for all their threatening words they are probably a scared and lonely fool. But then you'd just be trolling John Nimmo for his own problems.

But on the internet we can hide behind out anonymity and behave in a way we would never do in real life. But I guess what I am trying and failing to get across in this complicated minefield of a subject, is that a lot of that power of anonymity disappears when the victim of the abuse starts to question what is motivating it. It might be a genuine desire to harm you (which is why I still believe we have to find a way to report and police this more effectively), but in likelihood your invisible tormentor is only highighting their own issues and insecurities. You can flip the power situation round by understanding this. Perhaps.

Or perhaps not. But let's not be afraid to discuss these subjects openly. Sometimes I write a blog like this and think it's not worth posting it due to the abuse that I will then get from both sides of the argument. It's not a black and white issue, though some will insist on seeing it in that way and so might chastise me for daring to suggest that these people deserve anything but prison or alternatively call me a yoghurt-knitter for suggesting that we aren't allowed the free speech to tell feminists we want to rape them.

But maybe this story will illustrate what I mean. Years ago, when the internet was pretty new, I got into a discussion about some aspect of my work with some comedy fans on a forum somewhere. They were being very critical of me and I was defending myself and it became quite fraught and nasty and upsetting for me. It got quite personal. But then I met one of the people who'd been berating me at a gig and I realised they were about 15 years old and shy and nervous in real life. Which does not mean their opinion was incorrect (I had excellent comedy taste as a 15 year old), but it just shifted the way I viewed the whole conversation. I had been picturing someone quite different, but now the remarks made sense and were not as hurtful. Because a clever, cock-sure 15 year old is supposed to be cutting and offensive and arrogant and to argue they know more about everything than anyone else. He might very well have been spot on in his criticisms, but it was my miscalculation about who I was dealing with that had made the comments hurt. And now seeing him in reality, too nervous to even catch my eye I knew that a lot of his cockiness had come from the anonymity of the medium he'd conveyed his thoughts in.

Yeah, I am not sure I've really made my point and that's partly because I can't really pinpoint exactly what I think and this is a subject fraught with contraditions. I both think that these people should not be sent to prison for what they've done and that they have to be sent to prison for what they've done, for example. I'd suggest that if you think you know for certain what the answer is then you are probably part of the problem rather than the solution though! This is a subject that requires debate rather than absolute, unbending certainty.

But viewing your tormentors as socially awkward teenagers might not be a bad thing. Because there's a good chance that they might be, but if they aren't it will really piss them off that you think they are. If we unfairly stereotype trolls as that kind of loser then it might actually stop people wanting to be trolls.

We're all losers, but none of us want to be thought of as one.

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