At last, we know the truth about the hysterical troll panic

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

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So now we know: the great internet troll panic of last summer wasn’t only packed with exaggeration and mythmaking about the dastardly power of such bedroom-bound twitterers; it was actually a complete inversion of the truth about what was happening online.

The story shoved down every British newspaper readers’ throat last July and August was this: vulnerable female commentators and politicians are being harassed, even silenced, by a massive mob of trollish men who have been empowered by centuries of misogyny. The power dynamic, we were told, was one in which privilege-wielding men were harrying and shutting down isolated women who felt ‘utterly powerless’. It was a classic battle between brutish assumed authority and ordinary citizens, mostly female, who wanted simply to express themselves.

The reality? Well, two trolls – not a thousand, or a hundred, or even 10 – had charges brought against them and this week pleaded guilty. And these two trolls, this non-army, these completely insignificant individuals, are being crushed by the full forces of the state and the media. They’ve been named, shamed and demonised across the tabloid press, doggedly pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service and the cops, dragged before courts of law, and now face possible detainment at Her Majesty’s pleasure. What we were told was happening online – that vulnerable women in the media and politics were being silenced by a veritable army of haters – is the polar opposite of what has really happened, which is that influential women, backed by the media, the police and the courts, have successfully silenced two not-very-threatening individuals. Of all the numerous media scare stories of 2013, the troll one has proven to be the most myth-packed and warped.

Last summer, I took part in a Radio 4 debate with the media woman who was on the receiving end of most of the stupid Twitter trollery: Caroline Criado-Perez. She had successfully campaigned to put Jane Austen on the new ten-pound note (as I told her behind the scenes at Radio 4, my choice would have been Sylvia Pankhurst, not Austen), and for doing so she’d been subjected to various horrible tweets.

During the radio discussion, I argued that the national hysteria about trolls was a moral panic which was promoting the evidence-starved idea that the internet is overrun by misogynists exercising a ‘reign of terror’. In truth, it’s likely to be very small numbers of ‘sad, isolated individuals’ who are doing this trolling and we should just ignore them, I argued. Ms Criado-Perez countered that actually large numbers of people are involved in the tsunami of trolling, and far from being sad, isolated individuals, ‘terrifyingly, they’re quite normal men – they’ve got wives, they’ve got children, they’ve got jobs’, she said.

We now know that I was right and Ms Criado-Perez was utterly wrong. ‘Normal men’? One of the two trolls who had charges brought against them isn’t even a man; it’s a 23-year-old woman called Isabella Sorley who reportedly has drinking and emotional problems, yet who now finds herself splashed across every newspaper in the land as a wicked and heartless deviant. If anyone deserves the tag ‘vulnerable’, it’s surely her rather than the very well-connected Ms Criado-Perez. The other troll is a 25-year-old man called John Nimmo, who is described as a ‘jobless recluse’. Normal man? Hardly.

In the troll panic, the ‘power’ was not exercised by trolls against vulnerable women; it was completely the other way round – the power of the police and the law was summoned up by very influential women in the media to crush two rather sad, isolated individuals, to make a national laughing stock of them in a way that no single troll could ever hope to achieve against one of his chosen targets. Influential middle-class white women used their numerous platforms in the mainstream media both to give a favourable account of themselves and to demonise their online haters, demanding the exercise of state power against these quite hapless individuals.

It was power masquerading as powerlessness, the enforcement of tough, censorious laws under the guise of ‘protecting vulnerable women’, the marshalling of the state by flattered and applauded women who were posing as ‘isolated’. It was the state-enforced ringfencing of already very pampered, privileged women from any verbal abuse by small groups of ill-educated plebs. Ms Criado-Perez has described this week’s admission of guilt by the two trolls as ‘a great day for women’. Well, it isn’t such a great day for one woman, the allegedly emotionally challenged Ms Sorley, whose life has pretty much been wrecked by this process. It’s only a great day for the state, which through the troll panic has discovered a very neat way to package up its authoritarianism and desire to clamp down on internet offensiveness – pretend you’re doing it to save womankind.

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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