| 11.6°C Dublin

Why our celebs find social networking can be bitter tweet

It's been said that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Tell that, however, to Georgia Salpa. With her celebrity very much in the ascent in recent months, Georgia has fallen foul of that most common of celebrity occupational hazards; online haters.

Just last week, Salpa found an unpleasant Twitter message directed at her: "You are the definition of why people should go for personality over looks. You are so boring."

Far from taking any flak, Georgia took to the social networking site and responded to one troublemaker by calling him a "rude p****".

Naturally, she's not the only one to fall foul of Twitter users. Ryan Tubridy quit the site last August, with the reason widely believed to be the barrage of criticism he endures online week in week out from the public.

For his part, Tubs has had a love/hate relationship with Twitter, having once tweeted in a shrugged response to his online critics: "Twitter is a pub conversation. It comes, it goes #don'ttakelifetooseriously."

Yet things have taken a curious turn in even more recent weeks.


Twitter quitters, as they are called, also include Ashton Kutcher, Little Britain star Matt Lucas and Friends actor David Schwimmer; they have all left the network after having received abusive messages.

And, earlier this week, Westlife star Mark Feehily spoke out about the years of torment that he befell at the hands of Twitter trolls.

"I'm not talking about people saying your music is crap. I'm talking about proper abuse. I can't go into what they said but some of the things that have been said to me on Twitter, if someone walked up to me on the street and said them to me... they would be in jail," he noted.

"I believe there is a high level of tolerance about it and people are getting away with all sorts of things."

Once upon a time, online trolls were an annoying minority, whose sole role was to deliberately annoy and provoke others with daft comments.

Now trolling has become something of a cause celebre, and the term refers to pretty much anyone who offers negative comments online.

Social media advisor Darragh Doyle admits that trolling is part and parcel of the internet experience. With Twitter being dubbed as 'citizen journalism', it didn't take too long for citizen punditry to follow.

It can be argued that the right to reply -- for better or worse -- is what makes the internet the powerful beast that it is.

However, trolling contains a nastier element than merely moaning about the pedigree of the Late Late Show line-up.

"Cyber-bullying is not people talking about you, or people expressing an opinion," says Darragh.

"Once upon a time, internet trolls deliberately made trouble and provoked a reaction," continues Darragh. "Now, people are live bitching about Ryan Tubridy every Friday night as a matter of course. Little do many people realise that there's someone on the other side of the screen.

"There's this thinking that if you appear on TV, part of the deal is that you have to take the good with the bad."


But what of those who suffer at the hands of trolling and don't have a TV career to cosy up to? Diane (not her real name), a businesswoman from Dublin, was amazed to find herself bombarded with Twitter comments after she attended a business conference.

"Seeing comments from someone you don't know is bad enough, but the comments from people I knew were the real killer," she admits.

"My phone number is on my professional website, so I was stunned that some people decided to go to a public forum like Twitter to make themselves heard, as opposed to picking up the phone to me. It's nothing more than playground bullying.

"It seems to be more fruitful to some people to be the big man, throwing insults about Twitter. I've realised that Twitter doesn't turn on you; people do. People have come to me afterwards and said, 'I'm so sorry you had to go through that'. It's like, 'well, why didn't you help then?' But people don't want to bring that wrath on themselves."

It's worth pointing out that Ireland, by its very nature, is the perfect breeding ground for trolling. Given our love of gossip -- not to mention our 'island' mentality and oral history tradition -- it was only a matter of time before it reached fever pitch.

Worse again, our appetite for snark and begrudgery seems to be growing by the day. As with any catfight, there is a perverse pleasure to being a bystander, and keeping just out of the storm's reach.

"In Ireland, we love gossip and finding out stuff about people," agrees Joan Mulvihill, CEO of the Irish Internet Association. "Putdowns are such an integral part of Irish humour and Irish culture. It can be incredibly funny, yet when it's played out in public it can be very hurtful.

"In Ireland, we're always saying something funny, sarcastic ... but there's a difference between that and then being vicious," agrees Doyle. "The trouble with trolling is that you should be prepared to have it come back to you, and no-one ever really is. People will always say stuff online and be nice to your face; that's just the way of it."

Happily for Georgia, Tubs and a whole slew of others, a sea change is already afoot.

"The anonymity thing that most trolls had no longer exists," says Darragh. "Now, those who run sites are very concerned about defamation and are reviewing any content that could potentially end up in court.

"Under the Data Protection Act, Section 8, you can request the details of a person who has written something about you online. When judges start handing out fines to trolls, people will realise that they could be in real trouble."


Mulvihill adds: "People who 'troll' online will eventually be marginalised and identified for who they are. They will lose currency once people see them for what they are."

Naturally, there is a fine line between being gratuitously mean and simply having your say. Darragh advises thus: "The rule of thumb is, never put anything online that you'd not put on a billboard outside your mum's house.

"Also, think about what impression your comments might make on prospective employers."

As to those on the receiving end of trolling, he concedes: "It takes an awful lot to develop a thick skin, not to mention blocking people, or even doing something as simple as stepping away from the computer."

Yet, try as we might to silence them, it seems likely trolls will be with us a while longer.

"(One site I worked on) has a bad reputation for trolling, and a while ago there was talk of trying to remove the trolls," says Doyle. "But we quickly realised that removing the a**holes from any given site is a bit like trying to remove all the a**holes from society altogether."