Joe West trip-traps gingerly across the trolls’ bridge to greener pastures.
Last week I was walking along behind a young boy of about 12. The schools had just broken up for the summer and he was pushing a bike, on his way to wherever it is children go. (The pub? Surely not. But where else is there?)
He was unremarkable, to the point that I hadn’t been paying any attention to him, until two other boys of a similar age came towards us, riding their own bikes. As they approached, one spotted the bike-pusher ahead of me and said loudly “Oh look, it’s the batty boy. The fatty boy. You fat cunt. Look at your shit bike.”
I don’t doubt that the casual delivery of these extremely offensive remarks affected its target. Possibly he was aware of how ridiculous those words sound when spoken in the high-pitched twang of a prepubescent squirt. Perhaps it happens so regularly that he completely blocked it out. Or, as I imagined, he’d suddenly come to the horrid realisation that even at a time of the year when he is legitimately allowed to escape the claustrophobia of school, the monsters that haunt those lino-clad corridors will still appear to snatch away the fragile film of freedom that was beginning to form around him.
My Boy (as I began to think of him) did exactly the right thing in this situation. He completely ignored what had been said to him. Maybe his head hung a little lower, but he didn’t break his stride and the bullies were in the middle of pedalling in the opposite direction, so didn’t stick around to spew any more invective his way.
I was shocked by what I’d heard, relieved it wasn’t going any further and reminded of the need to frequently wish death upon a stranger just to get through the day. But after doing a few calculations using the mathematics of victimhood, I concluded that the bully would have drawn infinitely more satisfaction from getting a response of any kind than none whatsoever.
This same desire to stimulate a reaction is what fuels online trolls. They’ve been making headlines this week because a certain number of them have apparently been ticked off by the campaign to get Jane Austen on the £10 note.
You might wonder how something so apparently innocuous could motivate a person to use Twitter to threaten to rape someone and their entire family. But that misses the point of trolling. The trolls find what they do funny and empowering. They’ve worked out that you can make someone furiously angry in less than 140 characters, which is basically the same as having a magic wand, the waving of which can instantly alter the mood of another person. What’s even more intoxicating is the idea that the victim has to inflict the abuse on themselves by actually reading the repugnant titbits.
I think the desire to troll comes from immaturity, a sense of veiled impotence and a lack of self-awareness, all washed down with a shot of delicious online anonymity. And the best response to trolling is stoicism and pity. Block, report, ignore, move on. It’s the kind of activity that requires a huge amount of rationalising and reflection to accept as part of the online experience. And services like Twitter do have a responsibility to protect users from abuse while also balancing things like freedom of expression. But adults need to make a social shift towards politeness on the web. What’s wrong with just calling someone a cunt in the privacy of your own head?