Hugo Rifkind

Sorry, but internet trolling will be with us forever

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

This is not to be a column about Twitter. Can’t abide columns about Twitter. I’ve written a few, I know, but this is not to be another one. I promise.

Time was, though, it was actually quite hard to find out what people thought, if they weren’t you. I mean, you could go out and ask them, but the process always ended with you being in a supermarket car park, and them being mental and not knowing what the Working Time Directive even was anyway. Twitter is a pipe of views coming straight to your screen. So explicitly not writing about it can feel like going out into the world with a bucket on your head, simply because you’re a bit bored of people writing about what they’ve seen with their eyes.

Anyway, the thing that happened this week on Twitter that this column, which is not about Twitter, is to concern itself with was a bunch of people threatening another person with rape. She was Caroline Criado-Perez, a woman who had campaigned to put Jane Austen on a banknote. They were… well, I don’t know. That’s rather the point. One of them, a 21-year-old man, has been arrested. Potentially he was almost all of them. Potentially not. Who knows? There was lots of outrage, either way, and lots of angry columns about how bad it is that people are bad. And this, just so we are remaining clear here, is not to be one of them.

The thing is, it strikes me that when a person goes online to threaten another person with rape for wanting to put Jane Austen on a banknote, there can logically be one of two things going on. Either this first person genuinely feels that making somebody scared that they might be raped is a justified and measured response to his sense of irritation about a presumed feminist victory over a banknote. Or he doesn’t think that at all, and he’s a moron.


I think the latter. Which is not, by the way, intended as any sort of defence or mitigation, because this isn’t to be that sort of column either. But I have a longstanding theory that people are inexplicably weird online, and that quite a lot of the trouble they get into while online is directly the result. It’s a guess, obviously, but most likely most people who threaten rape online are no more rapists than that plonker who threatened to blow up Robin Hood Airport last year was a terrorist. Nor, I’d also guess, would most of them ever dream of threatening a women with rape to her face, however upsetting her views about the decor of currency appeared to be.

So the great question becomes this: does the presumed shield of web anonymity make them feel emboldened to say the nasty things they truly think? Or does it make them feel, perhaps inexplicably, that they’re free to pretend to think nasty things that they actually don’t? Take Oliver Rawlings, who the Daily Mail tells me is 20 years old and a student at Nottingham University. Last week he also took to the internet to say nasty things about the vagina of Professor Mary Beard, a prominent classicist. Then he apologised, after the professor threatened to tell his mum. Chances are his mum knows now.

Only Rawlings could truly tell us. But there is a school of thought that says he’d have been thinking these thoughts anyway, in the pre-internet age, but merely not speaking them, and I simply don’t think that’s right. Rather, I actually doubt he’ll have honestly grasped how hateful he was being even while he was being it. Should have done, obviously. No excuse for not doing. But I just doubt he did.

We are getting no better at this stuff — that’s what is striking. We remain unsure whether an utterance online is a shout in the street or a scrawl on the toilet door or a joke between friends. Each one has to be all three. Which is not to say, of course, that there are no true villains out there, because I’m sure there are plenty. But those of us with public profiles, or who write for a living, are perhaps prone to overestimating how many of them there are. We complain of being beleaguered by ‘trolls’ but remain lousy at distinguishing between those who merely disagree with us, those who disagree with us but rudely, and those who express a desire to sever our head and keep it in a box. Because it all looks the same in cold hard print. It all has the same stature, whether it means to or not.

When I wrote about this phenomenon five or six years ago I thought it was a temporary stage; that the world would evolve an understanding of what could be acceptably said and where. But I don’t think that any more. All this will keep happening. Nasty people will keep saying nasty things, and we will all keep caring even when we shouldn’t, and nothing will ever change.

A hidden gem

But listen. I’m miserable. Years ago, I wrote a well-received but poorly purchased novel about a thief stalking high society and stealing jewels. Now, suddenly, a thief is stalking high society and stealing jewels. Last week he hit an exhibition in Cannes and made off with 100 million euros worth. ‘This is it!’ I thought to myself, when I say it on the news. ‘Seven years late, this is where it all takes off!’ Nobody has called. Not Londoner’s Diary, not Heat magazine. Not even Vanessa Feltz. Bloody unfair.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Frank Acocella

    I agree with your comments Hugo, however the word “troll” has been abused by many people (especially the Greens and the pseudo “Socialist” to include anyone that disagrees with them on any subject. I have been called a “troll” by a former Green candidate for having the temerity to ask the current Green candidate what the Green policies are on inner urban green space. I have also been called a troll for also having the temerity to question the wisdom of cementing over a significant part of the largest park in my inner city by my local (mostly Green) Council, etc. etc. so the word “troll” has been hijacked by our Greens and pseudo “Socialists” to mean anyone that does not agree with them.

    • Eddie

      You are right: the words ‘troll’ and ‘trolling’ mean whatever one wants them to me – it is in fact an abstract noun, like ‘fairness’: it can mean whatever you want it to mean.
      Sadly, people are using this nonsense to try and strip people of the right to freedom of speech online – but only when it comes to men criticising women, of course. According to these feminasty hypocrites, women should be free to be as abusive and hateful and threatening to men as they want. That indeed is the feminist version of equality…

      • Elmboughs

        If a feminist threatens you with rape, they’re a criminal and you should call the police. Just like what is now happening to these scum, and quite rightly.

        Freedom of speech doesn’t include the right to threaten people with violence for disagreeing with you about who should be on the ten pound note.

  • Eddie

    Those hysterical feminasties and their soi-disant ‘liberal’ acolytes are quick to hiss and shriek when they (or anyone who shares their views) is verbally attacked on Twitter or Facebook (by the way, it is easy to block a Tweeter or someone on Fbook or someone emailing – and thus wee need to scrap the idiotic 1997 harassment law, which is being misused: it was set up to stop stalking and 100 arrests were expected a year; it is now mostly being used by vengeful spiteful women to get back at their exes. And sending just 2 emails to someone will get you arrested under that harassment law too…)
    However, at the self same time, they defend their own right to verbally attack anyone whose opinions and values they see as being in opposition to their own: i.e., anyone who is against the segregationist ideology of multiculturalism, anyone who wants to ban burkas and veils, anyone who is against endless mass immigration, anyone who does not support aggressive manhating feminism and the destruction of the stable two parent family, anyone who is against the left wing dictators and torturers like Chavez. – and of course the hate figures of the Left, like Nick Griffin or Gert Wilders or anyone who dares speak the truth about Islam.
    But if people are being arrested for supposedly ‘abusing’ and ‘harassing’ them, then why can’t they be arrested for the odious hateful venom they spew at all their enemies (men, non-lefties, true liberals etc) day in day out all year long?
    Maybe Nick Griffin should contact the police to formally make a complaint, as should the Fathers for Justice guys.

    • Elmboughs

      So you’re saying that feminists are just as bad as these scum? Really? Citation needed, pal. Show me a feminist campaigner who threatened someone with rape. I challenge you.

  • george

    Maybe, like Winona Ryder shoplifting the clothes she could afford a million times over, the Twitter creep and others of his kind are were testing the bounds of reality and hoping it would bite to prove it’s real.

  • Sean Lamb

    Hugo Rifkind is a @#$%

  • NotYouNotSure

    Wow, thats some incredible insight from this author, all this time I thought that people were all polite and courteous to each other, I would never have thought that people will be nasty to each other in the future.

  • Alexsandr

    I see much twitter twitterings as stuff that was written on toilet walls in the 1970’s

    In my school, someone put ‘xxxxx f*cks cats’ on the toilet wall in 6″ high letters. xxxx was the nickname of one of the deputy heads. A few days later it was painted over and that was that.

    But now that would be posted not on a bog wall but on twitter, and the said deputy head would say he is being bullied, and the police would be involved.

    Lots of offensive stuff was on bog walls then. Mostly about people sex lives. But that was part of life.

    But then females didnt go in male toilets and read the graffiti then.

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