Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Purge of the Trolls

Rome, and the year is 1633. An unwell, frail, elderly man nearly 70 years old is dragged into a darkened room lit by flickering candle light.

The guards hurl the old man to the ground. Overlooking this aggression is a panel of jurors, the Roman Inquisition, working on behalf of the Catholic Church. The old man is Galileo, and he’s on trial for heresy.

For Galileo had written a works entitled ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’ which spoke at length about the two competing theories relating to the Earth and Sun’s relative movements in space. The official stance of the Catholic Church was that the Sun revolved around the Earth [which was the central body of the solar system]. Galileo was suspected of supporting the rival heliocentric position – that the Earth orbited the Sun.

The trial didn’t go too well for Galileo. 

On being found guilty of promoting the idea that the Sun was the solar system’s central body and taking the heretical position against the Church, the old man sighed and looked upwards, stamped his foot on the ground and uttered, dejectedly, ‘and yet it moves’.

Galileo, the near 70 year old scientist was then dragged back to his cell to face a gruesome death by torture. It was only after a doctor interjected, late in the hour, that Galileo was far too old and ill to be tortured to death was the scientist given the ‘lighter’ sentence of life imprisonment where he would be forced to read the Psalms of Confession section of the Bible, every week, until the end of time, or death – whichever came first.

Within ten years Galileo died whilst under house arrest, after spending his last few years a blind man whose name had been dragged through the mud.

So much for scientific thought.

History is littered with incidents like Galileo’s fall from prominence.

Many of these tragedies we know about, but there’s also many we don’t know about because historical records have been lost to us through war, fire, flooding or even because the enemies of the individual didn’t want us to find out.

Throughout time immemorial has the individual with the unorthodox opinion been harassed, maltreated and often…killed…by the majority, by the mob. There’s incidents stretching back from Ancient Greece all the way to our modern day. Perhaps it’s part of our DNA as a people.

Worryingly however, where once we looked back upon history and haughtily tutted, dismissing our ancestors as a bunch of reactionary idiots…the issue has become hugely relevant in our modern world. We’re becoming almost as bad. All of a sudden we now have this notion of ‘trolling’ which has been appropriated by the media and is currently spiralling out of control.

I’m a guy in my twenties, the rise of social media has coincided with my journey from teenager to adult. Myspace rose to prominence during my late teens, Twitter emerged as a powerhouse in my early twenties. I feel confident in discussing the issue. Let’s be frank, there are trolls out there. To deny the problem would be folly. There are strange, slightly autistic, chubby types who sit in their parents’ basement and relentlessly post death threats to celebrities, or ‘invade’ Facebook groups dedicated to dead children and post horrendously offensive, graphic content.

These people are mentally ill. They’re somewhere on the spectrum. There’s an argument to suggest that they themselves are victims of sorts, and their vile online behaviour is the manifestation of a failed life of misery, where the troll lashes out at the world in order to alleviate their own inner problems and inadequacies.

But the scary thing is……the media have now picked up the term, and the media tends to be full of people from an older generation who don’t truly understand social media or the internet and since finding out about ‘trolling’…. they’re applying the term to absolutely everybody.

Any opinion uttered online that contradicts the common thought is now slammed as trolling. 

Had Twitter existed in 1633, you can absolutely guarantee that Galileo would have been dismissed and derided as a troll. Of this I have no doubt. For questioning the popular mind-set he would have been portrayed as an online sicko, as a member of the dregs of society. The ‘trolling’ criticism would have been hurled at him to not only besmirch his name, but censor him.  You can see the headlines in the press…’Sick Troll Blasts Bible with Crankpot Sun Theory’. Galileo would have been relegated from a human to some inhuman ‘troll’ that lurks in the shadows intent on upsetting people.  An entity beyond reason.

In recent weeks the Madeline McCann incident has risen to the surface in regards to the trolling phenomenon.

Everybody knows the narrative. Madeline disappeared from a holiday home in Portugal while the parents were nearby socialising with friends at a restaurant.

Many people in society remain irritated by this case, and are utterly dismayed and incredulous that parents would leave a three year old unattended for a period of time [no matter how many times the children were checked upon]. Furthermore the McCanns always seemed to lack charisma in their numerous television interviews, and when they released a book about the controversy and took on almost celebrity status, many mothers around the nation became pretty…irked.

When Brenda Leyland, a 63 year-old, mother of two, used her Twitter account to criticise the conduct of the McCanns during and after the disappearance incident it wasn’t mindless trolling for giggles, but merely an emotional mother giving a rather forthright and passionate opinion on the matter [one which went against the view espoused throughout the media].

The media caught wind of Brenda’s online criticisms and utterly destroyed the woman. 

They published her photos across the national newspapers, they published her whereabouts, ruined her life, they branded her ‘The McCann Troll’, snatching away her status as a human being, relegating her into some cartoonish villain.

Sky News set camp up outside her front door, pointed cameras at the household and accosted Brenda whenever she left the house. 

She was living under siege.

As the sun set, and the sky darkened to night, Brenda fled her home, gathered up what meagre possessions she could carry and attempted to escape the attention of the cameras and the ravenous media.

24 hours later, Brenda Leyland, the middle class, 63 year old mother of two was found dead on a bed in a Leicestershire hotel room.

This wasn’t the chubby, mentally ill, oddball in their parents’ basement posting crude rape jokes about dead people for a cheap laugh…..this was just an average mother with a seemingly passionate fixation about the welfare of children and happened to think the McCanns had been negligent.

Her mistake was to voice this opinion.

The night Brenda’s lifeless body, or, as the media put it, ‘the McCann Troll’s lifeless body was carried out of the Leicestershire hotel room her son Ben typed on Facebook:

“I love you mum and I will miss you forever.”

She had aired a controversial opinion online, one which opposed the prevailing mind-set and she had paid the penalty.

Suzanne Moore in The Guardian reacted in predictable fashion [remember the older generation of journalists tend to misuse internet terminology] by conflating Brenda Leyland in with all other mad trolls, as attention seekers, or just insane or sick. 

The important separation of somebody merely challenging the orthodox view and giving an opinion with somebody launching a campaign of mindless hate was just ignored. ‘All these trolls are the same’ was the inference, and that all online criticism which some people find offensive should be outlawed.

She snapped about these twitter trolls writing stuff that they wouldn’t say in real life. About a people who thrive through anonymity.

But surely, the reason people like Brenda Leyland felt the need to criticise through the internet was because if she voiced her views in public she might have been met with violence, verbal abuse and social ostracism – surely that is a greater criticism of an intolerant society? Of a culture which seeks to silence diversity of opinion? 

When we see old Galileo locked in his house and forced to read the Bible every day, or Brenda Leyland dead in a hotel room, is there any wonder people seek anonymity when delivering alternative views? It’s far safer that way.

As I write this article the main headline on Sky News, in pure Brass Eye fashion, is that online trolls are to be handed two year PRISON sentences. 

This of course throws up all sorts of questions...

How do you define trolling?

Is it merely the causing of offence?

If so, how do you measure offence?

What’s wrong with being offended?

Is trolling exclusively the weirdo who posts about shagging murder victims on Facebook? Or is it an elderly mother that makes controversial observations about current affairs?

Or if you’re Suzanne Moore, do you just lock them all up and swallow the key?

It doesn’t take a mad conspiracy theorist sitting in a cupboard with a frying pan on his head to see the easy jump from arresting trolls who post personal insults to celebrities, to the imprisonment of trolls who question government policy, or wars, or immigration policy, or well….anything that the powers that be deem to be offensive.

There has to be a line drawn in the sand, we’re mostly sensible adults, we should be able to discern the difference between posting death threats to actors and offering a criticism about a current affairs issue.

The political correctness of ‘causing offence’ started off as a just concept and aimed to protect minority groups, reduce violence and discrimination, but somewhere along the line it has transmuted into an uncontrollable beast that is increasingly impinging on all areas of public life. 

Stephen Fry has a fantastic quote about the sheer ridiculousness of the notion of ‘offence’:

“It's now very common to hear people say, 'I'm rather offended by that.' As if that gives them certain rights. It's actually nothing more... than a whine. 'I find that offensive.' It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. 'I am offended by that.' Well, so fucking what."

-       -   Stephen Fry

As we move towards a society where ‘causing offence’ becomes illegal, and as the net of what is deemed offensive widens to incorporate…well…..everything, more and more of us will fall foul of the ever-changing and increasingly irrational rules.
Anybody with an ounce of personality will become a troll. It now seems inevitable.

Let’s just hope there’s enough seats under the bridge for all us trolls, otherwise I’ll get a bit arsey and I might say something offensive at the goats passing overhead.

Who knows? Maybe Galileo can lend me his Bible and calm me down.

The beardy twat.

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