Notes From the Margins…

Troll Nation

  • September 01, 2016
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Anyone who has published, tweeted or posted  anything on the Internet will be aware that the worldwide web can be a dank and hateful environment in which all kinds of wild and extremely poisonous creatures flourish.  Whether it’s the anonymity provided by an avatar, or simply the fact that the Internet provides a tool for bullying and harassment as well as communication and discussion, it enables people to behave in ways that would not be possible and would certainly not be acceptable anywhere else.

To point this out doesn’t mean that I am anti-Internet, or that I believe, as Nick Cohen and others seem to, that the Internet has made people nastier and more stupid in the ‘real’ world.  It’s tempting to believe this, but I don’t see any evidence of it.  What I have seen is that the Internet provides a forum that did not previously exist, in which stupid and nasty people can flourish and even gain a power that they would not otherwise have had to bully, threaten, menace, or simply express views that would be generally considered shameful and reprehensible if they were not tapped into 140-characters or below-the-line comments sections.

There are so many dreadful examples of this.  No one will be surprised that Katie Hopkins marked the death of five men by drowning last week with a tweet suggesting that they were illegal immigrants.  That’s what made Hopkins famous.   Others with a similarly tenuous connection to humanity are known by their tweets rather their names. Three years ago Caroline Criado-Perez received hundreds of rape and death threats for having the temerity to suggest that Jane Austen should be on a pound note.   In May this year the 15-year-old British-Palestinian schoolgirl Leanne Mohammed  was subjected to a storm of online abuse because she won a debating prize defending Palestinian rights.

Recently the actress Leslie Jones.was subjected to an absolutely savage misogynistic and racist twitter assault  which forced her to abandon Twitter.   Her crime?  Jones is black and stars in the new female version of Ghostbusters – an apparently unforgiveable transgression in the eyes of thousands of bug-eyed racist morons who have harassed her and regarded the remake as some kind of heretical violation.

Clearly the Internet doesn’t turn people into jerks, but it nevertheless enables them to be jerks or reveal their innate jerkishness more openly.   Take some of the below-the-line commentators who saw fit to pontificate beneath the blog  by  Rosie.Ayliffe, the mother of the young woman who was horrifically murdered in a backpacker’s hostel in Australia last month by a Frenchman named Smail Ayad.   I always find these murders of young women utterly depressing, but this one was more shocking to me than most, because Mia Ayliffe-Chung was a local girl and a friend of my daughter’s.

She once spent a night in our house with a group of my daughter’s friends and kept me up because she wouldn’t stop chattering away in the room upstairs. Another time we picked her and my daughter up from a local festival.  All this happened some years ago, and I hadn’t seen Mia or even thought about her till we found out that she had been murdered as we were driving back from France.

My daughter was not surprisingly stunned by this, and the murder of a local girl of her age brought home to us that it could very easily have happened to her, or to any of the young men and women who were once part of her life and who we have also known, who have left this obscure corner of the East Midlands to go travelling.

Since then I’ve followed her mother’s blogs on the Independent and followed the case in the media to its latest grim development, the death of Tom Jackson, who tried to save Mia and was killed.    I have to admit that I was initially surprised that she wanted  to write a blog about her journey to Australia to retrieve her ashes, and suspicious of the Independent’s motives in doing this.

Reading the blog however, I was very impressed by Rosie Ayliffe’s grace and decency, and  by her quiet determination not to allow the murder to become a pretext for anti-Muslim hatred or become another sensationalised media-victim.  It is clear that Rosie has attempted to celebrate Mia’s short life in public in order to prevent her daughter from being co-opted by the media or by anyone else, and also in an attempt to deal with her own grief.

All this is admirable and even heroic.   But that is not the opinion of some of the truly repellent creatures who have come swarming in below the line.  Most of them were  as supportive and empathetic as you might expect from human beings worthy of the name, but others were disgusting and contemptible.

Some criticized Ayliffe for ‘politicizing’ her daughter’s murder by writing about it and insisting that it was not an ‘Islamic’ crime – even though there is nothing to suggest that Ayad was anything more than yet another misogynistic and possibly deranged male who did not like being rejected.   Yes there are reports that he supposedly cried ‘Alahu Akbar’ during his frenzied attack, which does not make it a ‘Muslim’ crime or an act of terrorism, as some of the below-the-line commentators immediately claimed – and attacked with the usual sarcastic ‘religion of peace’ comments that the likes of Katie Hopkins think are withering and devastating.

Some of these commentators have had the temerity to suggest that Ayliffe was some kind of ‘useful idiot’ deliberately playing down the ‘Islamic’ motivation in this crime out of political-correctness or ‘idealism.’  Today someone called her an ‘idiot mother’ supposedly profiting from the murder in order to make a career for herself as a journalist.   Another took time out to provide a little erudite mansplaining, criticizing Ayliffe for using the word xenophobia on the grounds that the word ‘xeno’ comes from the Greek word for ‘stranger’ and therefore could not be racist.

Some of this is outright hate-mongering, of the kind that regards even a mother’s blog about her daughter’s murder as a suitable forum, and some of it appears to come from the kind of dim, hectoring men who have always been among us.  What is clear is that none of these correspondents could care less about Mia Ayliffe-Chung or her mother, and are only interested in the murder insofar as it supports their bigotry.

The Independent has a long track record of allowing such comments and not monitoring its below-the-line pages, and it has wisely removed all comments and stopped doing comments under Ayliffe’s pieces now, and this is a good thing, because if the Internet has shown us anything these last years, it is that there are no barriers where trolls cannot travel, and no limits to what they are prepared to say or who they are prepared to hurt.

The fact that these poisonous bile-carriers feel justified in sneering at a grieving woman and using her daughter’s murder as a forum for spreading anti-Muslim hate is one hand a consequence of the digital revolution, that has given power to people who may not have any  power that they may not have in any other sphere of their lives.  But the Internet is only partly responsible for removing or weakening the ethical and moral constraints that might once have induced such people to think twice  about what they say  and keep their ‘thoughts’ to themselves.

Ultimately the responsibility is theirs, but no matter how much they hide behind their avatars and abbreviated names, they are the ones we should condemn, again and again, till they are too ashamed to show even their digital faces in ‘public’.

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  1. Richard Carter

    1st Sep 2016 - 5:00 pm

    Fine piece again, thank you, Matt.

    A minor addition: it wasn’t just the vile Hopkins who suggested that the five young men drowned at Camber Sands could have been migrants: the Sun also carried the smear prominently, as you can see on the front page here:

    The version online backtracks on this, saying only that “Witness reports had earlier suggested the men were “fully-clothed” and may have been migrants.” And, inevitably, this attracted the usual ignorance, as in this below-the-line comment – combining prejudice with tinfoil hat conspiracy – by one Steve Christie: “Won’t be confirmed they were migrants until its out of the headlines. Just like anyone who goes on the rampage with a machete and hacks people to bits now is not a terrorist, they have mental heath issues. We are just being softened up in the hope this kind of news doesn’t provoke public unrest. ”


    • Matt

      7th Sep 2016 - 12:28 pm

      Yuk indeed! Thanks for pointing this out Richard.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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