The rise of the Twitter Quitter
As the BBC presenter Monty Don becomes the latest celebrity to leave the site, we report on the stars who can’t stand the heat of the social media kitchen
A prima donna Monty Don is not. Mild perturbation flits across the BBC presenter’s brow when the asparagus becomes waterlogged. He exudes the lightest of sighs when someone advocates non-organic pesticide. Indeed, he appears to navigate the often murky waters of being a “television celebrity” with a yogic calm.
So, it comes as a surprise that he has become the latest Twitter Quitter – flouncing off the social media site after brickbats were flung his way.
“Bye Twitter, thank you to all those who followed with intelligence, charm and friendliness,” he announced somewhat cryptically at the weekend. His message was posted after he become sucked into one of those bizarre rows that only happens on the internet, never in the real world. It centred on badgers, which seem to cause trouble wherever they go.
Don had the temerity to suggest that it was a worthwhile exercise to cull – on a trial basis – some of the fluffy animals. It was like casually tossing a match into a foam-stuffed sofa soaked in ethanol.
All hell broke loose as badger cuddlers and cullers went head to head. Most of the ordure was thrown between the different camps, with Don only occasionally caught in the crossfire. The harshest attack on the horticulturist himself was: “That man clearly knows as little about the cull as he does about gardening #idiot.”
Don must have come across ivy more poisonous than this insult. But just because he is on the television doesn’t mean he has skin as thick as the leather jerkin he sometimes wears. And off he went.
He joins a long line of high-profile people to announce they are leaving Twitter, including Miley Cyrus, the twerking pop singer; Ricky Gervais, the comedian; Helen Skelton, the Blue Peter presenter; Matt Lucas, the comedian; and Stephen Fry, the actor and presenter whose career has been measured out in as many flounces as J Alfred Prufrock’s coffee spoons. Even the plain-speaking Adele reportedly left the site for a spell, after the birth of her son provoked abuse.
Don’s departure comes just a few days after over 10 million ITV viewers witnessed Rebecca Adlington, the swimmer, bursting into tears on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! as she recalled the anonymous hate messages about her appearance she had received on social media.
Why are people so beastly to celebrities online? And, one has to ask, why do their high-profile victims appear not only so sensitive to attacks, but also unable to resist the bear pit? All of the celebrities listed above soon returned to Twitter. Skelton, who received some pretty vile personal comments about her presenting during the Olympic Games, left the network for all of two months.
An increasing amount of research has been done on the subject of trolling, the term given to abuse posted on the internet – usually done under the perceived cover of anonymity (though nearly all is traceable) and to elicit a reaction.
An expert in the field, Prof Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, explains: “There are three reasons why people troll. They are bored, they do it for revenge or they do it for amusement. And when it comes to trolling celebrities, it is usually for the amusement.”
He says there is no evidence that celebrities receive any more anonymous abuse than anyone else. And Dr Arthur Cassidy, a psychologist, says that the most likely profile of a victim is a 19-year-old male, not a glamorous actress or an Olympic champion.
But Prof Griffiths does note that a key motivating factor behind celebrity trolling is the desire to “take them down a peg or two”.
In the case of Adlington, says Dr Cassidy, it is nothing more sophisticated than “simple jealousy at her success”.
The consequences of such malice may not be so simple, however.
Richard Bacon, the Radio 5 Live broadcaster, relates in his recent autobiography A Series of Unrelated Events the internet abuse that he received from one individual, who decided that not only should he die in a plane crash, but his wife and child should also come to a grisly end. The abuse he received was daily.
As Bacon tells me: “I suppose being on the radio or television involves a degree of showing off, and presenting a magnified version of yourself. And that can rub people up the wrong way.” He makes the point, however, that there is a big difference between defending free speech and defending criminal levels of harassment. These would not be tolerated in the real world; why should they be acceptable online?
And, over the past couple of years, an increasing number of people have been arrested and successfully convicted for posting abusive online comments.
Frank Zimmerman was given a 26-week jail sentence after sending emails to Louise Mensch, the author and former MP, telling her that she faced a “Sophie’s choice” of having to pick which of her three children to save – and which to die. Zimmerman’s sentence was suspended after the judge ruled he had mental health issues.
Dr Cassidy says, however, that many trolls are in fact “very intelligent, highly rational” individuals. What unites them is that they display sociopathic tendencies – traits that have been around as long as humanity – but the immediacy and speed of the internet has given them a new outlet.
Indeed, student Liam Stacey, sentenced to 56 days in prison for racist tweets about Fabrice Muamba made while the footballer was being treated for a heart attack on the pitch, blamed his being drunk for reaching for his phone so quickly and idiotically.
As for Bacon, he never left Twitter, where he has nearly 1.5 million followers. “I was on Daybreak this morning, I have my radio show this afternoon and also a new quiz show this week,” he says. “All of these will generate comments, some will be nice, some will not. It’s important to accept that it’s part of the territory. And if you are one of those people who lets the bad stuff get to you, you are probably not best suited to being on Twitter.”
It is hard to disagree. I occasionally present programmes on television, and they nearly always prompt a small rash of abusive tweets, invariably involving the C word, when they are broadcast. During one documentary on the subject of living for free, I received this tweet: “I would happily beat Harry Wallop to f------ death. For free.”
Someone suggested I should report this. My view was that at least it proved someone was watching the programme. A few rotten tomatoes, even those hurled with foul language, are not the same thing as persistent harassment that should be prosecuted.
Still, when you are properly famous, the tomatoes come as thickly as at the Tomatina harvest fiesta, when a Spanish town turns itself into ketchup.
No wonder then, that George Clooney, possibly the most famous actor in Hollywood, shuns the site. As he knows, Twitter is incompatible with maintaining a matinée idol mystique. As he said this month: “Why on God’s green earth would you be on Twitter? Because, first of all, the worst thing you can do is make yourself more available, right?”
I suspect, however, that Monty Don will be back. Like many flouncers before him, the temptation will be too great.