Monday was World Porridge Day, it also marked the start of ‘Hate Crime Awareness Week.’ I don’t eat porridge sadly, but I have just had a belly full of hate. My reckless descent under the bridge into Troll land started after I’d got very bored watching an episode of Question Time two weeks ago and sent an aimless Twitter message saying, ‘What does fat face know about anything?’
I didn’t say who ‘fat face was.’ At least three people on the programme qualified for that description. I was immediately assailed by Twittering voices from the hard Left, all assuming I meant shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East.
I quickly discovered that red trolls are highly sensitive and found my childish little comment utterly outrageous. Some were sad for me and blamed my years at the hated Daily Mail for the sordid wrong headedness of jibing at the sacred person of a Labour MP. Then I really forgot how to behave and made a joke about Jeremy Corbyn.
‘Have they all slept with Jeremy?’ I asked. ‘There has to be some advantage to it.’
A disparaging comment about him rather than the girls, but a tidal wave of outraged trolling followed, with the little red people turning almost purple:
‘A disgusting ‘joke’, ‘No more acceptable than a racist gag, ‘Borderline racism,’ ‘You claim this is yr little joke in a free country. Torrent of racist abuse is not.’ ‘People who try to divide the country based on race should be ashamed of themselves.’
This time they thought that I’d mentioned Diane Abbott, which I hadn’t. As a black woman, they saw her as chiefly a victim and I had apparently attacked her.
‘What an awful thing to say,’ ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ‘Spiteful and unintelligent.’ What are you, Jim Davidson? Bernard Manning?’
I had also failed to show solidarity with the Sisterhood: ‘What a disgraceful thing to tweet.’ ‘Undermining women in public life,’ ‘Jeez, proper sexist filth,’ ‘Sexist, low life, you are a sick individual.’
In their righteous ire they decided to get together to find out who I’d slept with in order to, ‘get ahead on Fleet Street.’
It went very quiet then as I am sorry to say there was no one famous helping me along at all. I never appealed to powerful men. D Trump would not find me to his taste at all. The only successful person with whom I copped off is only famous in Poland.
Their remarks and inquiries were all in the interest of social welfare of course: ‘You’ve nailed every form of 1976 pub bigotry known to man in this one tweet, except ableism.’ One compassionate soul expostulated. Another added charitably: ‘You should live under a bridge in your own faeces.’
That picturesque reference to troll habitat was retweeted more than any other.
One of the most telling messages came from ‘Blacksmith.’ ‘If you’re the one doing the baiting with ‘jokes’ then you’re the troll trollface.’
No jokes please, we’re young Brits. When I accused them of being a little lacking in humour like others on the Left, I was found guilty of the new crime of ‘stereotyping.’
I was surprised at the tenor of these particular trolls, they were just so puritanical. Their attitude to my remarks reminded me of Mrs Mary Whitehouse when I was a child, desperately attacking producers at the BBC for dramas constantly showing sex and nudity, which she regarded as an attack on the institution of marriage. She remained quite a jolly soul, but these young people were as straight laced as any dour, repressed Victorian.
‘Stop now,’ one warned me with almost avuncular concern. ‘You’ve let yourself down,’ others admonished, coming from that culture where sports-persons, celebs and sometimes MPs, stand up and say, ‘I’ve let down myself, my family down, the dog down,’ etc, etc.
I do not come from that culture with its Calvinist practices, and it was pointless to argue. On their puritan high ground, which is where most radical young trolls live, rather than under bridges, they cherish their beliefs and you disagree at your peril. In the old days you might have been burned, stoned or given a scarlet badge of shame. These days you are bombarded by anonymous messages of contempt if not hatred.
Once I began making replies I felt myself drawn down a dark hole, and endless pit of invective, loathing and cultural incomprehension. These were comparatively gentle trolls, a sub-species of the more lethal, nihilistic kind who probably do live under bridges. They wanted to shame and humiliate rather than kill and eat me.
‘Social media can be used to educate, entertain and enlighten but there are also people who use it to bully, intimidate and harass,’ said Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, recently. The faceless gremlins who tried to get at me and change my ways to theirs, were young and socialist, but they now come in all age groups and infest every area of social media, including ebay and YouTube.
One of the most notorious was Brenda Leyland, aged 63, a pillar of her community in Burton Overy, Leicestershire, until she took it into her neatly permed head to ‘troll’ Kate and Gerry McCann whose daughter Madeleine disappeared in Portugal in 2007. Leyland committed suicide when her online hate campaign was exposed by Sky TV.
She resembled the lonely writer once played by Dame Flora Robson in the film, Poison Pen, made in 1939, when such behaviour was very rare. Rather than cutting and pasting bits of newspaper in the shape of letters, Leyland spread her anger via the new, mass cult of on-line anonymous malice.
It is thought that she was motivated by isolation but the Metropolitan Police had already been passed an 80-page dossier of hundreds of tweets, Facebook posts and messages on online forums accusing Kate and Gerry McCann of being involved in their daughter’s disappearance, telling them they should at best burn in hell.
My trolls were harshly pious, most are just full of hate. Last year, amiable Classist Mary Beard was trolled after giving her support to mass migration on Question Time. After making comments supporting transgendered people the battery started again, with sixty nasty messages in an hour.
In 2014, Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, suffered a year of hell at the hands of trolls who threatened to rape and kill her. One of her attackers, Peter Nunn, who accused her of ‘witchcraft’ was given an eighteen week prison sentence. Campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez was hit when she pushed for more women on banknotes. She got fifty messages an hour from multiple anonymous accounts. When others stood up for her they became targets too. Sports broadcaster Jacqui Oatley suffered a similar fate when she became the first female commentator on Match of the Day.
More recently mostly female Labour MPs have been persecuted and manipulated on line by the anti-Semitic followers of chief troll lookalike, J Corbyn – but I won’t go down that perilous road again.
According to Alison Saunders, ‘Ignorance is not a defence and perceived anonymity is not an escape. Those who commit these acts, or encourage others to do the same, can and will be prosecuted.’
In fact the existing law is very ambivalent. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 makes it an offence to send or cause to be sent through a ‘public electronic communications network’ a message or other matter that is ‘grossly offensive’ or of an ‘indecent, obscene or menacing character.’
But the defendant must be shown to have intended or be aware that the message was grossly offensive, indecent or menacing, which can be inferred from the terms of the message or from the defendant’s knowledge of the likely recipient. There is a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment if found guilty, but there is a high threshold that must be met before a case goes to court, and that has to be in the public interest.
Happily for writers and unhappily for most trolls who don’t like free speech, ‘Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished by section 127 of the Communications Act.’
All very fair and balanced, and good for the society we used to have, when poison pen letters were largely unknown, but unfortunately trolls have now mutated and their activities have diversified into new forms such as ‘virtual mobbing’ and ‘dog-piling’, which is encouraging other users of social media to harass individuals by constant retweeting of defamatory material. They also go in for ‘doxxing’ publishing personal information such as home address or bank details, and devising derogatory hashtags to target victims.
This week, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) issued new guidance to deal with this proliferating poison; it is now illegal to encourage people to target a person on line because you disagree with them. Doxxing is also a criminal offence.
Prosecutors are also advised to take action against those who go in for ‘baiting,’ alleging on line that someone is sexually promiscuous. This often includes the use of doctored images. Convicted trolls may end up lying in their own faeces in a gaol cell for twelve long, Twitter-free months. Those who initiate hate campaigns may now also be charged under the Serious Crime Act. Then there is sexting, usually by mobile phone, in which children are often involved in sexually tormenting each other, Cyberstalking, or making unwanted approaches. Spamming, which is sending vast quantities of unwanted messages to a victim and if that isn’t enough, Flaming: subjecting users to abuse in live on line chat forums.
We live in a world where person to person communication even by direct eye contact seems to be dying out. Any new emphasis in the law comes too late to save Felix Alexander, who threw himself under a train in April, aged seventeen, after seven years of online bullying.
His mother told The Sun, a newspaper particularly detested by red trolls, that his ordeal began when his school mates teased him because he was not allowed to play the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
‘It began with unkindness and social isolation,’ she said, ‘and over the years, with the advent of social media, it became cruel and overwhelming. People who had never even met Felix were abusing him over social media and he found that he was unable to make and keep friends as it was difficult to befriend the most ‘hated’ boy in the school.
‘He did make friends at his new school,’ she said, but, ‘ He was, however, so badly damaged by the abuse, isolation and unkindness he had experienced, that he was unable to see just how many people truly cared for him.
‘I have been told that ‘everyone says things they don’t mean on social media.’
Poison pen letters once issued from lonely individuals in attics, or trapped behind net curtains. Their bit of vitriol on paper caused concern and consternation in their community and months of anxiety before the police fathomed out who was doing it, and they were taken away. How did so many millions of people, better off financially and fitter than ever before in history, turn out to be similar lonely, distorted individuals, tucked away in caves and under bridges, intent on spewing out rage and malice onto the rest of the hapless world?