In recent weeks there have been renewed calls for social networking sites such as twitter and Ask.fm to provide greater user protection and clamp down on ‘trolls’ – not the creatures under the bridge, but those who purposely create discord, antagonise and upset people online for the sake of their own enjoyment. It follows numerous tragic and disturbing cases involving threats of violence, defacement of memorial pages and several suicides.
Some national newspapers have since launched online campaigns and petitions rightly calling for action against trolling. In the case of The Mirror this involves the perfectly reasonable (albeit difficult to police) call for incitement of suicide to be made a criminal offence, and for the provision of a more effective reporting procedure on social networking sites.
The Media as a Tribe of Trolls
It is fair to praise those newspapers that pick up the gauntlet to launch campaigns and petitions against trolling, but we also have to question the sincerity of some of these crusades and their accompanying stories. Brazenly encouraging families to publicly air their personal grief, whilst inducing readers into a collective on-going battle against faceless enemies as a panacea to their own morbid fascination; that is indeed a reliable way to sell newspapers.
But quite apart from the motivations of such campaigns, surely the newspapers and their writers should look in the mirror before preaching to others. After all, journalists themselves often exhibit some of the worst attributes of the trolling culture.
Granted, journalists aren’t (I hope) sending anonymous rape or bomb threats, nor telling us to “do us all a favour n kill urself” as one disgusting cyberbully wrote to 14 year-old Hannah Smith prior to her suicide. But there is a remarkably fine line between the bullying that the media likes to condemn and that which it actively pursues.
Lord Leveson the Troll Slayer
It was only last December that Lord Justice Leveson described the media as having “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people” and one might argue that a national newspaper or website, with a variety of mechanisms at its disposal, can do so on a much grander and more dangerous scale than can an individual on twitter. Yet whilst the newspapers continue to paint themselves as virtuous dragon-slayers in one arena, they refuse to be scrutinised and regulated in another.
Last year an Australian newspaper launched a similar campaign against internet trolls, whilst without a hint of irony declaring the evil of “mercilessly attacking not just celebrities and sports stars but other everyday users simply for the thrill”. Of course this comes with the territory for many journalists who mercilessly attack not just for thrill but also for sales.
Newspapers seem unaware of the irony. No sooner did The Mirror lambast the ‘faceless troll’ who harassed Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy, than they showed his face to the country, providing its entire readership with his name and location and labelling him as a “jobless hermit”. Whilst I’m all for such tough stances if it creates a deterrent, for a publication that seeks to lead a campaign urging responsibility in these matters, such witch-hunting threatens to undermine its own aims.
But then this is the same paper that provides a regular double-page spread to ‘The 3am Girls’, gossip columnists who love to mock celebrities, have been exposed several times for allegedly falsifying stories, and once published a radio presenter’s personal mobile phone number so that readers could harass him for the sake of their own amusement.
Let us also not forget that The Mirror, alongside other tabloids, was successfully sued for defamation and fined for being in contempt of court after carrying out a despicable character assassination upon a wholly innocent man during the investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2011. The appalling media handling of the case was one of the Leveson Inquiry’s central examples of the press’ mercenary approach to individuals.
The latest addition of former Mirror editor and Life Stories tear-enforcer Piers Morgan as self-appointed troll-hunter-in-chief is beyond absurd. Morgan was singled out by Leveson as being “sufficiently unembarrassed by what was criminal behaviour that he was prepared to joke about [the hacking of individuals’ phones]”. His on-going correction of the spelling and grammar of not only trolls but almost anybody on his radar is amusing to start with, then rather tiresome, and ultimately somewhat vindictive. I hate poor language as much as the next person, but unless Mr Morgan is genuinely seeking to teach people good English (which I very much doubt) he is skirting awfully close to the condescending proposition that only those able to express their views without the slightest linguistic error are allowed to have a voice. Publicly belittling the argument of someone who may be dyslexic is comparable to trolling in my book.
The Leveson Inquiry brought forward a mountain of examples where the media had clearly overstepped the line with “ordinary members of the public caught up in events far larger than they could cope with but made much worse by press behaviour that can only be described as outrageous”. It also highlighted recklessness, a drive to sensationalise and a lack of concern for the harm caused or for the rights of those affected. Are these not also the key characteristics of the internet troll?
The absence of responsibility or recourse
Of course those able to pen stories in national media should know better. Children and teenagers like those who encouraged Hannah Smith to end her life can be incredibly spiteful and cruel but often lack full insight into the implications of their actions. Adults who have a good education, a professional career and experience of the realities of life should surely have sounder judgement. But it seems that a fog descends in the pursuit of a story, and things are definitely getting foggier.
Something peculiar happens both online and in print media which rarely happens outside these communication methods. Lancaster University’s Dr Claire Hardaker calls it the ‘Gyges Effect’ referring to Plato’s tale of a ring of invisibility that corrupted even the most morally upstanding person. The internet disinhibits people and removes empathy, reducing an emotional exchange between two fragile human beings to a faceless combat of words on a screen. The mass media is also effectively detached from the impact upon an individual and from any deterrent, given the lack of legal aid for defamation, meaning that only the rich can challenge inaccurate, misleading or damaging comments.
Dr Hardaker wrote about the psychology of trolling in a guest column in The Guardian. Perhaps she could have also consulted one of its journalists who last year hounded my friends on the other side of the world in search of information about me before needlessly slapping me on its front page in pursuit some ludicrously tenuous story, prompting panicked phone-calls from my family checking up on my own well-being.
I have witnessed first-hand how journalists grasp at an issue then hunt and harass until they can claim a scalp. The story in the newspaper is merely the tip of the iceberg, and is usually accompanied by horrendous tactics on other platforms, including twitter where insults are hurled provocatively like exploratory depth-charges. The permanent nature of anything written online makes it all the more important that people think before they press enter, rather than flippantly tossing quotes into cyberspace that can damage careers.
The damage done and the protection needed
It is easy to see how not just schoolchildren and teenagers can be driven to despair by something written online for all to see. For any professional person, having your character and judgement questioned and criticised publicly is a serious issue, but one for which there is no protection or recourse.
People of all age and backgrounds need protection. One in four adults suffer from mental health problems and can be highly susceptible to insensitive comments that others might dismiss as banter. There is a notable spike in both prevalence of mental health disorders and suicide (still incredibly the leading cause of death amongst males under 35) in middle age, contrary to the myth of this being an issue of adolescence. Provocative, antagonistic and disturbing comments made publicly can be as harmful whether they are received by a 14 year-old girl with concerns about eczema or a politician championing a personal cause.
There is a quite disgraceful common argument that ‘public figures’ such as politicians choose to put themselves in the media eye and are therefore somehow a legitimate target for offensive comments and dogged harassment. Unfortunately, public figures don’t come equipped with an extra emotional shield that the rest of us are lacking, and they are plagued with the same self-doubts and worries that senseless antagonism can push over the edge, just like anybody else.
So how about newspapers such as The Mirror, in tandem with its calls for better regulation of social networking sites, also submit to calls for better regulation of themselves? Whilst making it easier for victims to report cyberbullying, why not make it easier for victims of defamation to correct damaging statements? And whilst urging parents to have greater awareness of what their teenagers write and read online, why don’t editors and publishers pay closer attention to the twitter accounts of their own contributors? That’s a petition I’d happily add my name to.