Twitter trolls – it’s nothing personal…

This post was contributed by Dr Tim Markham, Reader in journalism and media in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

Twitter phoneTrolling has been all over the news this week, with lurid details of spiteful, sometimes threatening tweets targeting feminist campaigners like Caroline Criado-Perez and politicians such as Stella Creasy, combining with instant punditry and small-p political tribalism to create a media frenzy. The nature of the abuse is certainly eye-catching: at a time when a list of banned insults can be drawn up and distributed to fans of Liverpool FC, there’s something about seeing people being so rude that breaks through the seamlessness of our ambient, often amiable trawl through media.

Others have pointed out that it has the unmistakable whiff of a classic moral panic about it, amplified by the involvement of celebrities, half-recognised public figures and a technology still just new enough to provoke unease about how it’s wormed itself into the banalities of everyday life. This is part of a two-decade shift from the early days of the internet when fluid, un-pin-downable identity was something to play with, to today’s predominance of identity management coloured by perceived risk, actual or otherwise.

But why so nasty? For those already endowed with a particular flavour of public profile it’s a novel and often effective means of garnering attention: the mutual invective hurled by Lord Sugar and Piers Morgan can be fun to watch, though we know it’s no less confected than Gordon Ramsay’s vituperative televisual self. For others it’s a way of performing authenticity in a moment when that’s a scarce commodity and we’re open to recognising it in 140 characters or fewer on the screen of a smartphone. Irvine Welsh’s tweets are disarmingly filthy, and Caitlin Moran’s sometimes outré swagger seems unaffected, though her casual use of impolitic terms of derision has wearingly provoked accusations of hypocrisy in the current debate.

But trolling is different, right? It’s common at this juncture to evoke the driving metaphor: put a screen between yourself and the world and you experience a different kind of anonymity to what you feel on the high street or in a pub, a protective bubble that gives you licence to swear, sing, gesticulate and make (usually) hollow threats. If Twitter encourages similar disinhibition, then the solution might be to ban anonymity, Facebook-style.

Whether that is really an option depends on what sort of space we want Twitter to be, and while thousands of academic and commentators are gleefully holding forth on this question at the moment, there are four basic answers. The first comes from the network society evangelists who claim that by placing as few restrictions on social media as possible, new self-organising cultures will emerge and the best ideas will float to the surface. Well, no. Sure, Twitter is capable of making innovations and insights better known, but no more than it provides a platform for trolls – there is nothing about its architecture that naturally gears it towards democratic ends.

Next, others argue that with the right kind of restrictions on communication, including the responsibility that comes with being known to others, social media can furnish us with a new kind of public sphere where we can be more engaged, better citizens. But this expects media to solve what is essentially a problem of politics – disengagement – and while there’s no shortage of debate on Twitter, and not all of it vapid, it lends itself towards the kneejerk exchange of opinion, often entertainingly, sometimes uncomfortable, that should not be mistaken for the hard, usually boring work of public deliberation.

In the past week or so we’ve seen another vision of Twitter rear its head: a means of self-expression, a voice.  There is a real fear that trolling could lead to women writing about rape or domestic violence being silenced, and underlying this is the notion that Twitter users should above all treat each other with respect. There’s plenty of evidence of this on the platform, with some corners dripping in unctuousness rather than venom – a deluge of praise that makes some, like commentator Charlie Brooker, squirm. But this raises the difficult question of what relation tweeters actually have to one another, and what they are capable of doing to each other social media, for good or for ill. Is Twitter really a viable medium for a relationship of mutual respect between individuals with no other connection? It should go without saying that credible threats of violence should be taken seriously, and there are laws in place to make this so. Intentionality, though, is tricky, as you’ll know if you’ve joked about blowing up an airport. But what if the intention is to offend, not in the sense of being generically offensive, a cause with many supporters, but to inflict personal torment?

This is trickier still. The argument you often hear is that intention is irrelevant: if someone feels offended, then offence has been caused. But while this makes sense in the workplace, it’s not self-evident that Twitter is that kind of space of interaction. True, it’s different from being offended by a TV programme, because it feels personal, but just how personal is it? This is not to say that being trolled isn’t upsetting, nor that the internet is just a virtual space where nothing really matters. And severing the link between an author’s intention and the meanings their texts engender certainly gels with the spirit of postmodernism. But we know that people feel some kind of relation to disembodied others on social media, though it is different from interactions with people we know, or could identify if we wanted to. It can feel intimate, too intimate, to be thrown into a hostile flurry of tweets aimed at you, but it can also be put into perspective, distanced. Cambridge prof Mary Beard is adept at this, responding to tweets speculating about her genitalia by pointing out that such insults are ubiquitous in history and as such mundane, as is the sort of trolling that imagines out loud the various tortures and humiliations they’d like to see meted out on someone. It’s still uncomfortable, but not an attack on her because – to use the sociological lingo, interactions online between individuals who don’t personally know each other are not interactions of authentic selves.

Ah, the authentic self. The other cry of despair heard across the media this week has been about what trolling reveals about what people are really like when the niceties of normal social interaction are foregone. Suddenly exposed is a hard-wired culture of misogyny and violence, or, on the other side of the argument, a crisis of masculinity, an incoherent, badly spelled howl of rage from those men – working class, presumably – society has left behind as it has become more enlightened, respectful, tolerant. But to be a bit methodological about things, this implies that a twitter stream reveals the soul, the true identity of the tweeter. And this brings us to the fourth way of thinking about Twitter – as a communicative, rather than existential, space. Years ago Erving Goffman examined in great detail the rituals of interaction that people have to learn in order to participate in all manner of communication, whether through media or face-to-face. He was particularly interested in the difference between the ‘backstage’ work we do in order to present a coherent, competent self to others in social situations, and his ideas work well in the context of social media. But when asked what he felt this revealed about the true self underlying our everyday performances, he replied that he just wasn’t interested in the true self. I like to think that I am interested in other selves, but I take his point about not looking for them in the wrong places. Our selves are not manifest in our social media interactions with unknown others, and the cheering corollary is that we are not as fragile on Twitter as some have been suggesting.  Making no excuses for trolling, it can at least be put into context as a form of communication: narcissistic, certainly, and expressing alienation and animosity, but in a way that is generational rather than endemic to the social media age. It would be counterproductive at this point to diagnose a new form of evil in trolling. It may be hateful, but it’s usually nothing personal – even if it looks like it is.

3 thoughts on “Twitter trolls – it’s nothing personal…

  1. Interesting article. I agree trolls should not be considered as a new form of evil. It is better to consider trolling as a modern manifestation of behaviour that has always been around.
    In its mildest form, trolling can be regarded as mild naughtiness designed to provoke a reaction for the perpetrator’s amusement while ignoring the feelings of the person on the receiving end of the joke – akin to ringing a doorbell and running away.
    At the other extreme, trolling involves a deliberate attempt to frighten, humiliate, intimidate or belittle the person on the receiving end. This may be ‘personal’ in the sense it is deliberately targeted at an individual with the clear intent of attacking that individual. Or, more commonly, it may be ‘impersonal’ in the sense that it is targeted at a person who represents a wider group eg. on the basis of race, gender, class, etc.
    I am uncomfortable with the notion that this type of abuse can be easily dismissed as ‘not personal’. Maybe it is as ‘not personal’ as a cluster bombing is impersonal, or rape by a stranger is impersonal, or ethnic cleansing is impersonal. For the individual on the receiving end, it must feel as personal as hell.

  2. Tim Markham’s piece underestimates the scale of the problem. According to a soon-to-be published survey by the NSPCC of 1000+ 11-16 year-olds, 1 in 5 of them has experienced bullying, unwanted sexual messages, cyber stalking and feeling under pressure to look a certain way. Perhaps he should ask the parents of Hannah Smith, the tormented 14-year-old who committed suicide, if the trolling that she received was personal or not.

  3. It has been subsequently reported that Hannah Smith sent those messages to herself. We can only wait and see. It would not be the first time: University of Wyoming student Meg Lanker-Simons is currently accused of sending violent rape threats to herself on Facebook. Regardless, the case of Hannah Smith is obviously awful and there is no doubt a small but vociferous constituency of online users who behave in ways we find reprehensible.

    I do think there is more to this than we may realise. I have had an account with Tumblr since 2007 and it is striking how a subculture of suicidal imagery has become established. Such Tumblr accounts will consist of pages of quotations — themselves already reblogged many tens of thousands of times by other users of Tumblr — and tending to be a variation on “Nothing is worth anything now you’re gone”, usually written in cursive text across an artfully blurred image of a rainy day. These will be inter-collated with images of self-harm, in the main slashed and now scabbed forearms. Then, usually in the evening, the Tumblr account owner will announce that they have opened their ask.fm account for questions and the whole thing turns even darker. I would be interested to see just how many of these messages actually come from the users themselves. Recently I saw an image of a pile of pencil sharpeners, under which was written “Remember when these were just for pencils?” I stared at it like a crossword clue, until it occurred to me what was implied. If there is a culture of playing with the tropes of severe mental health — and I fear there may be because it demands the kind of attention that has become the sine qua non of online life — then it must be worth studying.

    Defenders of Meg Lanker-Simons claim the ends justified the means; I’m not sure what the ends are for the Tumblr users. Perhaps a need for love, perhaps attention, perhaps to feel noticed above the online din of millions of disparate voices living vicariously through a curated version of themselves. There’s more to this than merely the behaviour of trolls.

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