Trolling away…

Is this sort of behaviour from Nadine Dorries (MP for Mid-Bedfordshire) an example of trolling?

What about this tweet from Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan?

I ask because in Ye Olde Days ‘to troll’ meant to post provocative content, often repeatedly, to fish for reactions. What Dorries and Hannan are doing above matches my understanding of “troll” in the early days of messageboards and chat-rooms. Neither example fits into what I understand to be the “new” definition, which could be leading us into trouble.

I appreciate language moves on and develops on-line and off, which is why we say “apps” and “ghost town” rather than “programmes” and “Google +”. But how has troll been adapted and adopted so much that it appears to have become the go-to buzzword for any kind of negative behaviour? Or for that matter any kind of perceived bad behaviour? I don’t remember the day when the definition flipped from ‘mild irritant’ to ‘anybody swearing on the Internet’, and I don’t believe it’s particularly helpful for debate to have the new definition continue unchecked.

As with David Cameron’s attempt to tackle on-line porn with a belief that everything from a thirty-second wanking video to a full three-hour HD clusterfruitcake is the same thing (and therefore MUST BE BANNED *pitchfork*), I fear some people are confusing and conflating all manner of different Internet character traits into one big blob of negativity for the sake of advancing a cause they don’t fully understand. Indeed there’s a danger that those shouting “TROLL” are guilty of trolling themselves, refusing to countenance debate and blocking anybody who questions their logic. It’s a very difficult task to balance defiance with diligence and often those who refuse to enter conversations can be those who shout loudest about fairness, freedom of expression, and the right to free speech.

Let’s be honest about the level of debate on-line, particularly Twitter. It’s not great. This is not quite how the Greeks would have imagined democratic discourse. People get very angry behind keyboards for all manner of reasons – they think the laptop screen is a defense shield, they think the keyboard gives them special powers, they think the Internet is a “leveller”, making celebs, MPs and the like fair game for talking to like anybody else. It’s another “fine line” argument; to what extent to we allow people to swear, insult and flail about and what is the acceptable cut-off point between acceptable responses and unacceptable content?

Calling David Cameron a “cock”, a “cunt”, and a “ham-faced wanker” each and every time he posts a tweet has swiftly become a national hobby. It’s rude and crude and all the rest of it, but it’s generally harmless. It’s not trolling to automatically reach for the f-word, in my opinion, even if it’s right to call it rather childish and unproductive. If you want to discuss the rights and wrongs of D-Cam there are other places to do so on-line, and often with the space to fully express your opinions. The race to be first in an Internet argument has created an unfortunate situation whereby detailed responses are becoming increasingly rare, reducing many discussions into “bad verses good”, “yes verses no”, “right verses wrong” slanging matches. It’s little wonder that the insult “troll” has become just as easy to reach for as “wanker” in places such as Twitter where every letter counts.

But shutting down a conversation/debate/argument with “Whatever, you’re just a troll, bye” is insolence and childishness. The conflation and confusion in the changing definition of “troll” means that it’s all too easy for those idiots who threaten sexual abuse to innocent women to become associated with harmless people who just want an proper debate. It’s much harder to access politicians and celebrities if they use ‘troll’ to mean anybody who dares question their opinion. The Internet would not last long as a place to share ideas and opinions if the high-ups conclude that anyone who tries to debate is piss-taker or potential abuser.

It can mean the act of willingly taking the mickey for fun, just being silly, or poking the hornet’s nest. This is why we have to be careful about using it to justify policing the net.

What Caroline Criado-Perez has gone through just because she lobbied the Bank of England to accept Jane Austen on a banknote is the worst example of abuse. To be threatened with rape because of her campaign is basement level idiocy, grotesque and gruesome. Nobody should have to suffer such an onslaught of knuckle-dragging cuckoo-bananas lunacy. I have no doubt that many of her critics are idiots and trouble-makers without a genuine point to make if they had 1,000 days to think of one. Idiots of the highest order are acting like keyboard warriors, sending bomb threats to journalists for a cheap laugh, much in the same child-like manner that people make prank calls to the police. It’s not a “cheap laugh” at all for the people who have to suffer the constant flow of sludge into their inboxes.

All this said this is where my default position kicks in. I have always felt uneasy whenever I hear about added regulations against free speech. There’s a very serious argument to be had about the future policing of the Internet, whether or not it ends up led by a highly committed group of female rights campaigners with Parliamentary support. I cherish the freedom of speech and right to reply which the Internet allows, just as I cherish the need to fight back against abusive behaviour. This debate may redefine the Internet in the UK forever, which is why I hope we can agree on what exactly “trolling” is before everybody gets the Internet they wished for…

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Mong the Merciless

So, another news story generated from Twitter. It’s as though journalism really is onto the final injections and long talks about inheritance, the way all this is going on.

In summary – yes, this is Ricky Gervais, whose brand of comedy thrives on awkwardness, subverting conventions and generally pushing people further and further in their pressure points. I am not without criticism towards Gervais as it is, particularly as the cross-over between creative genius and self-satisfaction occurred halfway through Extras and hasn’t been returned to since. But he can still be very funny and thought provoking….as we have all seen with this latest version of Twitter Generated Public Fury.

By using the word “mong” in a one-liner tweet, Gervais unleashed the usual InstaReply Corps. of Twitterati, the libertarians and PC-brigade, the professionally shocked and defenders of the free speech; all falling over each other in hurried attempts to prove themselves either more shocked or more in support than the last. Edifying? Well it hasn’t done much to save the general public from sounding like reactionary keyboard warriors, and I say that as  a blogger…

Is “mong” offensive? It’s been a while since my schooldays but even back then it was considered one of the harder swearwords, most likely to cause teachers to scowl and scold. But we giggled and guffawed all the same – as we did with “gay” and “spaz” and all the rest. It was a bog standard primary in the north, and we were very young, so every swear word and offensive term was scoffed up like sweets. They were bad words, naughty, and tempting. “Queer”, “Paki”, “wanker”.  How much joy it was to be alive with these terms on our tongues. “Retard”, “spastic”, “belm”.

Language alters and changes, all grammar leaks, and meanings of words develop and mould; any English language tutor can tell you that. “Gay” and for that matter “queer” are reclaimed by the homosexual community, leading to one classic Homer Simpson line (“That’s our word for you!”). And if you’re worried about “Paki”, then you needn’t worry one bit.

So why the on-line whom-a-flip over Gervais and his use of “mong”, or the way in which some celebrities have placed themselves on the side of the critics? In all fairness to Gervais (and it’s not as though he gives on single hoot), the term does carry provocative and offensive weight, one of the remaining slang terms which walks around with punch in its fists. It is related to many turns of phrase which have not been rescued by the cape of irony (“And then Mr Smith went full retard”, case in point). There is nothing in law or reason stopping Gervais from using the term in a joke, thank heavens, and long may there not be. The massed ranks of the “how dare you” brigade would do well to remember it’s a far better state we live in which allows him to use it.

However….and there will always be howevers…there are very good reasons why we have the offended mechanism hard wired into our brains. Jokes are not automatically funny by virtue of being jokes; “it’s all in the tag” as the comedian’s watchwords go. As Frankie Boyle has found to his cost, being offensive for the sake of it turns the person making the gags into a tiresome and predictable bore.  The hardest and most effective part of a joke, or indeed any turn of phrase, is the pay-off. That the tweet at the centre of all this centred on an offensive term misses the point; did the term itself assist the joke being effective?

We are told that children must be protected  –  from swearing, violence on TV, sexual content, explicit computer games.  We are told by certain reactionary quarters that adults too must be protected, that horses must never be scared, that naughty words and blue humour is outdated and boring. This age of political correctness and attitude of ‘we know best’ just has to be brought to an end. “Mong” will be a term that causes severe offence, of course it is, just as “spastic” must have done in the 1980s, but there was no legislation then to wean people off the term then and there sure as hey should not be now.

Gervais could have used a different term, and if he was that kind of person, no doubt he would have climbed down a bit by now. (“Time to show some humility, eh?” to quote Ed Miliband from earlier today.) His use of the word was ill-judged, though you will find me nowhere near the crowd of orchestrated shocked types lighting up the pitchforks. The words we need to find these days are reasoned ones for debate; it’s more offensive to read frothing rent-a-quote outrage than it is to see the word “cunt”.