Trolling on twitter is a strange and deeply dark phenomenon


The death of the much admired Caroline Flack caused shock waves that were personal as well as public. Whenever anyone tragically takes their own life, it has the effect of spreading guilt and shock around like a cosmic low pressure system. Suicide, tragically, always has that effect.

Some people immediately blamed the trolls; others wondered if they could have done anything themselves to reach out. Suicide always imposes this burden of guilt on the bystanders. The more public the person is the more bystanders get caught up. Poor Caroline was a very public person.

Indeed she lived on a kind of cloud of public approbation and interest. It was such a dangerous place for anyone to try to find their footing. Public support can be fickle. And even if not fickle it can melt away in the face of an unexpected tragedy. The accusation of domestic violence was just the kind of tragedy that might cut the ground from under her feet. As the adored icon of Strictly, and the glamourous referee of the addictive (to some) Love Island, the one tragedy her public image could not survive was the accusation of domestic violence.

It didn’t matter greatly if she was guilty or not. It didn’t matter if the circumstances were complicated or just unlucky. The trolls moved in and their on-line howling began to echo the fears inside her head; until they amplified them to the point of complete despair. She silenced both the trolls and the voices inside her head with one tragic, desperate, self-inflicted act.

The trolls came in for a hammering for all those looking for a scapegoat. Obviously the Crown Prosecution service did as well; so did her employers, accused of treating her harshly at the moment she needed their support.

But the employers put their supportive emails in the public space, the CPS showed they were only following orders, or applying procedure in their language, which left the trolls.

Trolling on twitter is a strange and deeply dark phenomenon. Are there really so many hateful bitter, angry people around, nurturing human bile in a highly public system of twitter sewerage? There seem to be.

We live in strange circumstances today. Since we have the oddly conceived ‘hate crimes’ on the statute book, you might expect the police to unmask and visit the trolls. They might  warn them they could be held them to account for the terrible effects their abusive language and behaviour exerts. The one thing we might want to take more seriously is the semi- anonymous hate and bile poured out on twitter against fellow human beings. You can be sued for libel if something is printed that is not true and causes harm. Why is social media exempt from this?

We appear to have it all back to front. Why allow the freest of free speech when it is directed by trolls against people, when it’s the people who should be protected? Astonishingly we don’t allow freedom of speech so that we can test ideas. But ideas always needed to be tested, and as vigorously as possible. But try testing certain ideas on social media today, and you may find the police, ignoring the trolls and the trail of human despair and misery left in their wake, drop round with their knock on the door, and check your thinking.

You may have heard by now of Mr Miller. Once upon a time he was a policeman too. Now he works for his own firm in Liverpool. He retweeted a limerick, and received a visit by the police.  His tweet wasn’t about a person. It was about a process. He asked the question about what gender a trans person really was. It’s a question a lot of people are interested in. The answer differs according to whether you ask it as a psychological, biological , cultural or political question.

The policeman who knocked at Mr Miller’s door, a PC Mansoor Gull said he had come round to “check Mr Millar’s thinking.” “You realise what that makes you?” Mr Miller replied to PC Gull…. “The thought police.” Sadly this went over PC Gull’s head. He had never read Orwell. Mr Miller poignantly describes the conversation  on the investigatory YouTube channel ‘So what you’re saying is.’

We have a situation then where the police will interview a person who ‘questions an idea’ on twitter, and is then reported to the police by someone who was claims to have been offended, and who is then described by the police as a victim; even though, as PC gull admitted, there has been no crime for there to be a victim of; except a ‘thought-crime’ . After which the Police drop round to ‘check your thinking.’

There are some obvious solutions. Come off or ignore twitter? But twitter can be the most immense resource for exciting and informative communication  as well as septic anonymous trolling. We should be able to address this.

If there is any kind of notion of progress that is real, we should be able to find a way to use public media to protect people, because all people are vulnerable. There is no such thing as an invulnerable person.

And we ought to find a way to make sure that no idea is protected. All ideas should be examined, critiqued, tested and stretched (including this one.) No idea should be beyond criticism.

If we are to keep both people and ideas safe, we need to learn the difference between the two, protecting people from anonymous abuse, while challenging ideas to see if they are true and work. The stakes are very high. Democracy on the one hand, and the lives and sanity of the vulnerable on the other.