Tuesday 27 September 2016

People need to toughen up and treat the Twitter trolls with deserved contempt

Published 29/12/2015 | 02:30

'What happens on Twitter stays on Twitter – unless you choose to allow it to ruin your life'
'What happens on Twitter stays on Twitter – unless you choose to allow it to ruin your life'

My, they grow up so quickly, don't they? As Twitter swaggers into its 10th anniversary, it has announced that, from now on, it will be waging its own war on Twitter 'trolls', those pesky mosquitoes who swarm around the electronic swamp that is social media.

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According to its European head of operations, Bruce Daisley, it's time for the company to take action against online cowards and from now on it will contact those people who are reported for abusive behaviour, to remind them that: "What you are doing here exists in the real world."

That seems fair enough - to a point - but the company also boasts that: "The other part of the strategy has involved giving users new tools to block trolls and to expose the worst offenders by encouraging people to share their list of blocked accounts."

Like many ideas, both online and in the real world, that sounds, at first, like a good thing. After all, nobody likes being abused on Twitter and if you're prepared to let that kind of nonsense get under your skin, then it can undoubtedly ruin your day.

Such concern for the delicate sensibilities of Twitter users is both admirable and recent. Indeed, so lamentable has their previous attitude towards online argy-bargy been, that one former executive for the company made headlines a few months ago when he admitted in an internal email that Twitter 'sucked' at dealing with abusive tweeters.

Of course, there is more to this new, caring approach to its users than meets the eye.

Twitter may be a behemoth, boasting more than 300 million users and valued at more than $25bn, but is small fry compared with the big player on the block, Facebook, which has over a billion users and is estimated to be worth in excess of $167bn.

These are colossal figures and with Twitter trying to introduce a live news service later this year, it evidently wants to be seen as a more socially responsible and professionally respectable outlet, rather than just a fetid repository for the twisted revenge fantasies of many of its users.

So, on first glance, these new restrictions seem like a timely admission by Twitter's owners that it's time they paid more attention to what was said on their network. In reality, however, they will simply encourage a further mass mobilisation of bullies who will now hunt in packs for people who have been named and shamed on the publicly available 'list of blocked accounts'.

The inherent lunacy of this idea can even be seen in the language used. For instance, a 'troll' used to be someone who would post provocative or inflammatory comments simply to watch as people over reacted. In fact, some trolling can be quite brilliant and clever and, once you know the give-away clues, extremely entertaining.

But in the hyper-accelerated world of social media, what was a specific term a few years ago has morphed into something completely different - and now a troll is simply anyone who expresses an unpopular opinion. In fact, we now live in a culture where any contrary position on social hot-button issues is denounced as 'hate speech' or, my personal favourite, 'verbal violence'.

The fact English politicians have almost universally welcomed this move says all we need to know - whenever a politician is in favour of restricting opinions, the rest of us should immediately be wary.

Even Twitter's use of the phrase 'real world impact' fails to take account of the big elephant in the room - people need to toughen up and grow a thicker skin, rather than retreating into a position of squawking victimhood. Because what happens on Twitter stays on Twitter - unless you choose to allow it to ruin your life.

Perhaps the best example of the logical disconnect we're suffering is the failure to understand the difference between an explicit threat and an obnoxious message. Put simply, if someone says they are going to kill you, then that is a death threat and is already covered under the law; saying, on the other hand, that you hope someone dies is merely pathetic and stupid and should be treated with all the contempt it deserves.

Perhaps we need to change our cultural outlook on this issue.

Rather than suffering a fit of the vapours and panicking every time someone sends an unpleasant message, people should be urged to wear that abuse as a badge of honour.

Whenever I can be bothered, I tend to retweet the most inventive examples of the abuse I receive and, to be honest, some of them have been rather funny, particularly the ones that are obviously marinading in their own rage and resentment.

By bringing in swingeing new powers to combat electronic eejits who project their own failings onto others, we are giving them a power they simply do not deserve - it's a case of smashing a nut case with a hammer.

Also, many of those who have recently been banned from Twitter, such as the journalist and feminist-baiter Milo Yiannopoulos, were suspended simply because enough people mobilised to complain. Mob justice is no justice at all.

Fools and socially inadequate losers have been with us since long before Twitter and our parents' generation were, on this and so many other issues, refreshingly sensible - sticks and stones will break my bones but tweets will never bug me.

Irish Independent

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