Katie Hopkins is in the news again. Of course she is. Barely a week goes by when the professional twitter troll doesn’t make it her business to wade into some twitter debate and cause a ruckus. But after reading that Hopkins was being investigated by the police for hate crimes I got thinking about the amount of trolling stories that graced last years headlines; a lot. 2014 was the year of the troll - professional or otherwise.
Trolling became part of the national consciousness in 2014. A term that once referred to pedants on oft-ignored internet chat rooms and epitomised by Comic Book Guy in the Simpsons has taken on new meaning and now describes the act of posting obscene, inflammatory or upsetting remarks on public platforms. Trolling has become a consistent bugbear in the lives of anyone who is even marginally involved in the public sphere. It even seems to be a sport in some cases. In April Women Who Eat on Tubes, emerged, designed for strangers to band together and take photos of women eating on public transport and then ridicule them for it, perhaps an extension and a consequence of the unnatural anonymity we enjoy online? Psychologists believe trolling can be put down to mob mentality is that mentality beginning to spill into reality?
The discordant nature of the modern phenomenon became starkly apparent at the end of the year as we watched as Brenda Leyland was exposed as a twitter troll and subsequently committed suicide. Leyland by all accounts was a normal friendly woman and not the kind of person to send abusive and hurtful messages to grieving parents. Whilst Leyland remained anonymous she experienced no consequences for her actions, in the same way those taking pictures of unsuspecting tube-eaters have no way of gauging the fallout of their photography. If, in their everyday personae, they were to be held to account for such an illogical action as mocking a woman for eating then they would surely be shamed and embarrassed. The Internet has the ability to feel safe and unreal, and the advent of social media has intensified this. Like a game where all of the players are uncannily close to reality but at the same time not, we’ve all said something to a friend on the Internet that we would never have said in person. Trolling is an extension of that. Distance and, in the case of trolls’, anonymity reduce the risk in human interaction but also blur the results. When the cloak of anonymity was withdrawn from Leyland she had to consider the consequences, consequences she probably never contemplated when tweeting those messages that seemed so disconnected from reality.
So if the answer lies in consequences what should they be? It’s a question that has stumped victims, commentators, social media bosses and the authorities alike. There are so many opinions on how to tackle trolls but no correct one, no 100% or even 50% guaranteed recipe to effectively beating them. But that doesn’t stop people trying. Victims are coming up with inventive ways of creating consequences for their trolls. One journalist contacted her trolls’ mothers to stop naughty teenagers doling out rape threats, while academic Mary Beard suggested giving the troubled souls behind the abuse a helping hand by providing them with a reference. My favourite response though, was that of Marie Brian who cross-stitches the abuse she receives and sells some of it here.
On the more serious side of things, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling suggested quadrupling the jail term that can be attached to trolling but this was met with derision from many who felt it could damage the freedom of speech this country enjoys. But whilst nothing is officially done, varying punishments and jail terms handed out to convicted trolls, the culprits can continue to cause havoc on peoples lives. Those who aren’t as good at cross-stitch as Marie Brian are left to deal with the extreme pressures constant and usually unfounded criticism can create. Jennifer Aniston admitted her and her fiancé try to stay home as much as possible to stem the torrent of abuse and countless others decided to boycott sites like instagram and twitter altogether. Zelda Williams was bombarded with abuse after the death of her father leading her to suspend her account. Trolls were intruding into the grief of a daughter for her father. Although trolling can seem dismissible, after all it happens in the semi-real world of the Internet, it is having a decisive impact on the way people live their lives in the real world.
Possibly most worryingly those who stand up for what they believe in are almost always automatically subjected to abuse. The year began with Isabella Sorley and James Nimmo being jailed for the vicious abuse they reigned down on Caroline Criado-Perez after she campaigned for a female face on sterling bank notes. The threats bore no relation to her campaign. Rightly or wrongly the argument usually goes that celebrities get what they deserve when it comes to the media, that’s what they signed up for. In the case of normal people though, people who have an opinion or a story to tell and want to be heard, people like Criado-Perez, or people who are just trying to do their jobs well like labour MP Stella Creasy, should they be subject to trolling? Are we in danger of stopping people speak out for fear of the twitter backlash? If celebrities who presumably have developed a thick skin to deal with such things can be driven to ‘stay indoors’ then perhaps.
Trolling is unique to the teenies and would have once been inconceivable. We are more aware than ever of the vitriolic hatred bubbling under the surface of everyday life. In 2014, more than ever, this boiled over from social media and into the news. In 2015 we need to find a more sure-fire way of dealing with this ever-increasing problem in order to ensure people continue to live their lives in the ways they want, and moreover, campaign and complain and stand up for what they believe in without being subject to ridiculous, unfounded and hateful abuse from people who probably barely realise they are doing it. The troll and the trolled need to be aware of the effects their tweets actually have, trolling needs to be exposed for us to begin to deal with it. If The Hobbit taught us one thing to apply to modern day life it was that if we shine a light on trolls they will turn to stone. I think we should heed that advice.