“The Internet does not create social outcasts,” started the line I first heard in the mid-1990s. “It collects them.”
It’s been quite a week for reeling out the wise old sayings and maxims, from “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” to “Never trust a moose to buy a round of drinks”. Or something. To dust off another tired old phrase – “he’s the kind of person who could have an argument in an empty room” – and there’s no more larger collection of empty rooms that the internet outside abandoned building projects in the greater Dublin area. As long as there’s been message-boards and chatrooms there’s been Internet users ready and willing to flame a debate in a flurry of pedantry, insults, defamation and ‘your mom’ jibes. You’re not likely to be more than three clicks of a mouse away from a choice Anglo-Saxon swear word or twelve, be it within the swamps of YouTube comment sections, newspaper story reaction threads or Twitter.
It’s the microblogging tweeters which have attracted the most attention from the mainstream media this year, to the extent that it appears the BBC and Daily Mail consider themselves to have coined the word “troll”. With trolling becoming the issue of the day for the guardians of good taste and decency, misunderstanding of the realities of everyday Internet use will doubtlessly grow, and from there comes bad law and reactionary mistakes.
With millions of people reacting in real time to every event happening around the world, be it waiting at a bus stop or watching the men’s 100m final (spoiler alert, Americans, Usain Bolt wins), Twitter never stops displaying the thoughts of everyone and anyone within easy reach of a keyboard. It should be obvious to anyone that little corners of Twitter will therefore get testy and tetchy, especially when dealing with those parts of the real world which seems so far away and distant – namely politics and celebrity. People always feel a buzz of starlight and success in the presence of celebrity or power, which is why so many Twitter users rush to get a reply, re-tweet or just a mere mention from someone whose face appears in the newspapers every so often. The Press can examine this as much as they exploit – themselves trolling the search function for enough insults and criticisms to fill a page of orchestrated outrage.
As anyone who’s ever worked in an office will tell you, email and the Internet are considered “great levellers”, enabling people with a slight grievance to email the head of department or supervisors in real time about (and I’m using real examples from my own office life here), the choice of music on a CD player brought in for the Christmas period, the eating of paté at lunch, and requests to take time off for “boyfriend problems”. The consequence of this can be a lack of common sense to the point of sheer lunacy, seen sporadically in message-board rants, seen almost by the minute in foul mouthed, racist or generally violent tweets to celebrities, television presenters or the like. I can see both sides – if a celebrity joins Twitter they should expect both fans and foes, but how does the ‘leveller’ of the Internet justify specifically targeting a presenter for being, say, fat, or boring, or ugly, or too Asian, and how many idiots do we allow to act this way before acting ourselves?
Britain already has laws against malicious behaviour on-line, some of it going back decades to an age when the Internet was talked about without the definite article and nobody had ever considered it likely that the computer in the corner of the room would be used at 2am for watching repeats of QI on YouTube. There’s no real need for additional laws against trolling to be drafted, though it’s tempting to risk it just to see how legalese translates ‘trolling’ into parliamentary language. “Trolls” can encompass all manner of on-line behaviour, not just wishing Tom Daley would be drowned or calling a British Muslim television presenter pub-chant insults. I’m sure some people will gladly call those users who type “FIRST!” underneath newspaper articles “trolls” just to see them woken up at 5am by the finest members of Inspector Knacker’s Computer Corps. Additionally, it could be worth a quick call to the Malicious Computer Behaviour Advisory Group (see, I’m already guessing how parliament might have to transliterate these sorts of things) every time an American calls a Briton “douchebag” in the YouTube comments sections underneath sporting highlight clips.
The fact is – we don’t need additional laws curbing Internet use, Twitter behaviour or blog opinions. By focussing on Twitter, the media are in danger of allowing the rest of the Internet to fester all the more than it already is, and that’s the very definition of the law of unintended consequences. Stretch the net further and you’ll find 4chan (and we all know about that, don’t we), the Daily Mail (ditto, for the same reasons by and large) and Facebook’s campaigning groups division, for which there’s no moral outrage too trivial that can’t be turned into a mawkish flag of life changing importance. There’s no feasible way, short of closing the Internet completely, for every page and every comment to be policed, not least because so little can be easily captured or searched, and as I said before, the ‘great leveller’ of the Internet provokes the most enthused argumenter to waft around “freedom of speech” justification at every turn. Arresting a student for insulting an Olympic diver whilst approximately a hypergazillion people wish death by cancer on approximately an additional hypergazillion in YouTube comments sections seems a little like trophy hunting to me.
I’m not being fatalistic; the Internet can be polices, and despite being a fence-sitting free-speech loving treehugger I accept that some frameworks must be erected to catch the worst forms of insulting or violent behaviour. But from this must come reason and restraint – is it ‘malicious’ that some sites host videos of alleged shooting massacres in Iraq or Syria, shared by some people who campaign for justice in the Middle East and shared by others who just like watching gore and extreme violence? How much legalese do we want to slalom around the distinction between “genuine” and “fake” reasons for sharing around violent videos of this kind? If we learned anything from the ‘Twitter joke trail’, the written word can be redefined howsoever an unintended audience member wishes. Will there be a legal definition drafted for sarcasm, irony, insult? What becomes of a joke when a barrister-turned-MP decides to analyse the definition for the purposes of statute law? If you watch a video in which a Libyan market trader is shot in the neck, do you watch it for pleasure, curiosity or research? What about porn?
The Internet can be a very angry place. You’re never too far away from people ‘swearing down’ that another person, or an institution, or an entire country, is going to feel his/her/their wrath. If we allow the current breed of Twitter trolls to lead the redefinition of on-line behaviour, we could end up with restrictions far beyond any feared by SOPA campaigners. I’m more angered that my mobile phone provider demands I ‘opt in’ to material it considers to be adult, and that this appears to have been largely accepted, than I am bothered by knowing that a celebrity television presenter is being called an ugly slut on Twitter. He/she/they can probably deal with that in their own way, or just stop using Twitter. There’s little chance of fighting back against censorship or state control if there’s restricted access to the very tools to carry out the job. Let’s treat all trolls as we would most permanently angry. I’d rather have an Internet with a few old man’s pubs occupied by barflies and world weary know-it-alls than one with minimal furnished see-and-be-seen bars where you walk around with fixed smiles and bitten tongues.