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Carol Hunt: Anonymity should not be used as a cover for cruelty

Last week the birth of singer Adele's son was greeted in some quarters by rather less than the usual newborn-baby goodwill.

On Twitter, @PerfFemale posted: "Aw, Adele gave birth to a baby. Is it fat and handicapped: lol," adding, hilariously, "Just murder it already lol." A devastatingly insightful contribution from a fellow tweeter added: "I'm pretty sure that Adele secretly hopes she'll have postpartum depression, so she can make one heck of an album after it!" And another; "I don't wish 'nothing but the best for you' die bitch."

Now, immature kids, sad pathetic idiots and naturally cruel morons have long been making comments like this about random people unlucky enough to appear on their radar. It makes the poor gobshites feel better about themselves, and if they get any sort of a reaction they're only delighted. 'Whoo-hoo,' they scream delightedly in all their sad solitude: 'People are paying attention to ME! OMG! LOL! Aren't I just fabulous?!'

This is why one of the rules of Twitter -- and indeed all social networking sites -- is "Don't Feed the Trolls".

A troll, for those of you lucky enough never to have come across one, is an anonymous (usually) poster to a social networking site who makes deliberately obnoxious comments and then gets off on the chorus of disapproval that inevitably follows.

And yes, occasionally a troll can be fun; witty, confrontational, contrarian and thought provoking. The vast majority are not. They are, I repeat, gobshites. And quite a few of them are nasty, cruel and very stupid gobshites.

Some anonymous trolls give off the revolting impression that they are 20- or 30-something blokes, home alone with a computer and a six pack (beer not abs); surrounded by fag ends in cold coffee cups; hands scratching a whiffy crotch in three-day-old grey underpants; getting off on "bravely" insulting people they either envy, fancy or irrationally hate.

But trolls come in all shapes and sizes and both sexes. The one thing they have in common is a nasty, dissatisfied hatred of positivity and success. These people have resentment steaming out of their pores; they dislike people who actually take risks and do stuff and they really hate people who are happy and contented with their lot.

Of course, we don't need a psychologist to figure out that most trolls, not very deep down, are self-hating cretins, but no point telling them that; they rarely have the tools or courage to self-analyse. Which is why they take so much pleasure in "analysing" others because, of course, trolls can do whatever it is you're doing -- singing, acting, writing or whatever -- far, far better than you, if they could just be bothered to take their hands off the keyboard.

Which brings me back to the "Don't Feed the Trolls" admonition: as a fairly regular social media user, it's a rule I usually adhere to. Though my own little corner of Twitter is full of kind and interesting people, I have, of course, come across more than a few vile Neanderthals in my time. I'm happy to argue a point with anyone, but if you address me as a pathetic right-wing/socialist/Jew-loving/man-hating/ feminazi (I've had all) scumbag c**t, you can hardly be surprised when I block you.

And yes, teaming up my name with a well-known gynaecological insult is just so original, witty and downright amusing that I never fail to "lol" when that particular gem is posted.

Most people who put themselves in the public eye know that idiots engaging in ad hominem insults are par for the course. And I doubt (although I don't know for certain) that Adele -- talented, successful, loved and blessed with a gorgeous new boy -- would be arsed giving even a moment's concern to the disgusting things said about her and her baby last week. But the fact that such revolting comments can be publicly posted "for fun" by people who believe they have full immunity to do so begs the question: does the right to free speech trump all other rights?

Can you really get away with suggesting to kill a child online? Even if you do add "lol" after the threat?

Of course, in the real world defamations or incitements to hatred are punishable by law; insults are not, and social media is no different.

In the UK Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days for "racist" tweets about the footballer Fabrice Muamba, and Joshua Cryer was sentenced to a two-year community order and 240 hours of unpaid work for racist tweets about Stan Collymore.

And, of course, in Ireland we also have the notorious "blasphemy law", lauded by medieval theocracies which deny their citizens civil rights. So being less than reverent to the nutcase beliefs of, say, cretinous creationists, could land me in big trouble, whereas posting a tweet about someone being a fat, f**king c**t who needs a rough seeing-to is obnoxious but legal.

Not too long ago, I tweeted a quote from the US TV series The Newsroom, which said that the only justifiable reason for anonymity on social media was "if you're Deep Throat or in a witness protection programme". It started a discussion, mainly from anonymous followers, on the need for some people to be able to speak freely online without being castigated for it in "real" life. I had a rethink and had to admit that yes, in some cases anonymity was a right.

However, all involved in the discussion agreed that nothing gives a person the right to abuse.

If we know the identity of trolls, should we out them? I think in cases like Adele's, we should (and they have been) -- lest we normalise or even trivialise obnoxious behaviour.

Seemingly the person who advocated the murder of her new baby was identified as a 12-year-old girl. She and others like her, and all those who pass on such insults "for fun", have to learn that anonymity is no cover for cruelty and that online, as in the real world, the only way to communicate is with courtesy, if not kindness.

Sunday Independent