Sunday 16 June 2019

David Robbins: Though I work in the shadow of the valley of the trolls, I will fear no angry emails

David Robbins

There is a certain advantage to writing a small and seldom-read column tucked away in the corner of an inside page of a supplement which is in turn tucked inside the main paper.

Such relative anonymity means that I am not often, to borrow Oscar Wilde's phrase, "exposed to comment".

In an age when readers of the internet edition at least can "like", "dislike" and post their comments below articles, I lead a relatively sheltered online life.

The "trolls" (internet nasties who post vituperative comments for fun) have for the most part left me alone.

Student Eoin McKeogh was not so lucky. A disgruntled taxi driver posted a video clip on YouTube of a group of young people who ran off without paying their fare.

A poster to the site identified one of the group as young Mr McKeogh. This was incorrect; he was abroad at the time of the incident.

That didn't stop the trolls from posting streams of abuse both on YouTube and on Mr McKeogh's Facebook page.

McKeogh went to court to stop Facebook and YouTube from publishing further postings. During the hearing, the taxi driver testified that McKeogh was not one of the fare-evaders.

His further attempt to prevent the print media from publishing his name was not successful, however, and he may be facing a large legal bill as a result.

A few days later, at a conference on new media, newspaper publisher Alan Crosbie launched a broadside against the "tsunami of vulgar abuse" posted by anonymous website contributors.

In the world of online publishing, the readers who respond to an article by posting their opinions are referred to as being "below the line", while the journalist or commentator who wrote the article lives "above the line".

Such is the level of personal abuse "below the line" that many writers I know refuse to read and/or respond to comments on their work.

There are also occasional below-the-line campaigns, in which a writer with a certain viewpoint is targeted by those with a differing one. Writers expressing anti-Republican views on US politics are often "hazed" by organised online blitzes.

Dawn Kitchener works as a moderator (someone who monitors the online trench warfare and deletes offensive posts) for eModeration, a company that moderates online forums for clients such as ITV.

"Once people are behind a computer, they can turn into monsters, saying things I don't think they'd say in real life," Dawn told the Guardian this week.

Some of the comment threads are so distressing that her employers arrange their rosters so that moderators get a break from the more emotive subjects.

In media circles, there is an acknowledgment that journalists have forgone the role of "gatekeeper" to become just another voice in the online cacophony of comments, blogs and tweets.

Publishers like the idea that readers can interact with their newspaper. It's democratic and inclusive and all part of the social media revolution. It has also turned quite nasty.

But here in our little haven of calm and civilised behaviour on Page 20 of the Weekend Review, all is sweetness and light.

Not that I haven't had my share of negative comment. Back in the days when readers had to email their views, I received a missive lambasting me for my dislike of sharks. "And I resent paying €2.25 to look at your bald bonce," the reader concluded.

Another article -- which dealt, I like to think, in a nuanced way with the work of Henry James -- elicited a trenchant email response.

Henry James was not for me, I thought, because his characters never said anything definitive. They could never bring themselves to declare their feelings. All was ambiguity and subtle shading.

Young men and women were forever meeting up, having tortured and stilted conversations, and then parting. Neither character was ever quite clear what had just transpired, and the reader was equally mystified.

"You, sir, are a moron. Is that unambiguous enough for you?" wrote my correspondent. (I replied that he had expressed himself with admirable clarity.)

I enjoyed these comments. I don't mind a bit of vulgar abuse, just as long as it's witty vulgar abuse.

drobbins@ independent.ie

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