Online abusers have nothing to teach the toxic trolls who now debase parliament | Catherine Bennett | Social Media
Embedded, for a while, among thousands of comments responding to the Guardian’s report on the People’s Vote march in London last weekend, was one saying the marchers should be hanged. Even in a strikingly ill-natured discussion of the participants – aka “virtue signallers”, “entitled”, “lemmings”, “cowards” – and our alleged motives, it stood out.
You had to wonder, apart from anything, about the method of execution, which has to be one of the more impractical approaches to mass murder, even taking into account this particular crowd’s much satirised familiarity with orderly queues. From a deliberative aspect, the hanging proposal seemed unlikely to persuade, but, as I’ve recently learned as a mature (as in, ancient) student, reading academic literature on user comments, one body of thought proposes that the imposition on citizen debates of conventional, deliberative norms is, in itself, a form of prissy elitism.
Why announce, as their early innovators did, that these spaces are opportunities for genuinely democratic, peer-to-peer discourse, then shun the inadequately ornate for not saying stuff such as “with all due respect”?
To argue that the hanging comment is insupportably unpleasant and pointless is, from the above perspective, just the sort of thing you’d expect from an entitled, virtue-signalling, cowardly lemming; the sort of person who probably wants to stop celebrities swearing in front of children in Finsbury Park. Perhaps one should welcome, instead, comment that’s robust, demotic, unadorned, illuminating?
Maybe, it has been argued, if everyone had paid more attention to the quantities of angry, pro-Brexit reader comments, pre-referendum, the result might not have come as such a shock – at least, visibly, to Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. The loathing in some of the comments about last week’s marchers may, assuming it’s not attributable to anonymity and disinhibition, usefully expose the scale of hostility to a People’s Vote.
Then again, as they say in Waitrose, incivility has been shown to deter potential commenters and thus diminish claims that these debates are representative, significant or even an asset. If insults and ad hominem abuse deter journalists from reading comments, as Becky Gardiner, a journalist turned academic, established in a recent study, they are also off-putting for many readers, to the point of becoming an insurmountable problem for some of the websites that initially provided them. In his recent book, Ctrl Alt Delete, Tom Baldwin charts the normalisation of online abuse as, he says, “the information superhighway [as its more Utopian champions once called it] became a mixture of Wacky Races and Fury Road”.
One result, then, of untrammelled freedom to comment has been the loss, or heightened monitoring, of comment spaces or their shunting to social media, although even there a new sensitivity may make life more difficult for advocates of, say, mass hanging.
To the fury of some users, Twitter, for instance, is on a quest for “conversational health” and with both Trumps now insisting on the need for civility – eg not calling women “horseface” – Twitter’s user-friendly euphemism is really coming into its own. Even Facebook (where most moderators don’t last a year) is discovering that, although Holocaust denial is defensible free speech, its data collection turns out to be incompatible with assertions of white supremacy (white separatism is fine).
For all, then, that online debate-management varies from platform to platform, site to site, can be vague on moderation parameters, the extent to which abuse is being discouraged, or identified in public discourse, must be increasingly troublesome for users who can’t argue nicely. Once even Reddit evicts misogynists and boasts a forum called Change My View, what are the options for citizens who lack the skills to debate without resorting, as some of our politicians have, to “shitshow”, “knifed”, “lynching”, “fuck” or “cretin”; for those unfortunates who, whether it’s the result of a poor education or some unresolved hurt, can’t disagree with a woman without picturing her chopped up and in their freezer?
The day may not be far off, in fact, that the only place where uninhibited “lulz” about killing women won’t get you moderated or suspended is the higher regions of British politics. As confirmed last week, the disgust that followed reports of George Osborne’s earlier freezer bag and “dead woman walking” pleasantries could not silence the likeminded Tory ex-minister reported to have said of Theresa May :“The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon.” Another source, described as an ally of David Davis, told the Sunday Times that May had entered “the killing zone”.
That some of our politicians should not feel their speech constrained by norms of civil debate, or the need to lead by example, is less disturbing, of course, than the exhibited obliviousness to the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, the murder of PC Keith Palmer – and a 22% rise in knife crime. In a Channel 4 report, Symeon Brown brilliantly exposed parallels between distasteful political rhetoric and allegedly harmful drill music.
Though some experts point out, soothingly, that savage political invective dates back, at least, you know, to the Romans, others may find more telling parallels with the online experiences of women who have found themselves, as Angela Nagle writes in Kill All Normies, “hated for destroying a male space with their feminine culture”. Nooses, lynching, freezer bags – what we’ve heard sounds very much like authentic Westminster’s answer to authentic 4Chan, with its “rules of the internet” once including “there are no girls on the internet”.
Along with the normalising of misogynistic violence by its elected representatives, the public surely has reason to worry – failing the urgent introduction of a Westminster moderation team or guidelines for reducing children’s exposure to the place – about the potential damage from MPs’ trolling and threatening language to healthy public discourse. It would be curious if the only debating space fully exempted from standards devised by a white, male elite was that same elite’s ancestral home.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist