Jason Manford’s response to Gary Barlow’s trolls showed us the paradoxical power of the internet
Trolling isn’t what it used to be. I remember when trolling was just derailing a thread with a mischievous or intentionally ridiculous comment. But an explosion in social media and technology turned chatting online from something associated with the lonely and the chronically passive aggressive into one of the most popular of methods of communication available. Now, exes, classmates, politicians and comedians are all crammed into the same social spaces – alongside, of course, the lonely and the chronically passive aggressive, who are still there, and often still think of it as their safe space to be as anti-social as they need.
Trolling – the new kind, deliberately designed upset someone, whether just for kicks or for the all-important ends of point-scoring to feel you’ve won a ‘debate’ on some obscure point – has now become such a normal part of using the internet that a lot of us just shrug and roll our eyes at it. After all, trolling happens to “bullied to death” schoolgirls, women who make videos about sexism in gaming, politicians and journalists. It’s what happens when you express yourself. Don’t feed the trolls, everyone says, as if they’re just an inevitable part of the web, like browser crashes and car insurance ads.
Yet, despite that awareness of and resignation to the existence of trolls, Jason Manford’s blog, Trolls and Gary Barlow, trended on Twitter nearly all day yesterday. People were shocked when they saw the comments directed at Barlow about his family’s tragedy. Some say it brought them to tears. Why? Why were we so shocked to read things that we knew people were saying already?
The intense reaction to Manford’s blog wasn’t just about the comments as isolated words; the Manford blog tore at my heartstrings but I don’t well up every time I read YouTube comments which can be a lot worse. The juxtaposition of the inhumane trolling with such a powerful expression of humanity was what made us realise just how emotionally dysfunctional some of us have become. It was the context.
Context is a funny thing. Awful behaviours get normalised fast, and their brutal ugliness gets little more than a shrug or an eye-roll, because they’re just ‘how it is.’ Take the now-famous YouTube video of Karen Klein being tormented by school kids. Making the Bus Monitor Cry triggered utter disgust worldwide once it was watched by outsiders removed from the context, but none of the kids involved seemed to find what they were participating in particularly horrifying at the time; it was only after it was shown to them in the context of a humane reaction that they were sorry. And it’s not just the general public. The same newspapers railing against Twitter trolls themselves publish articles that cannot be defended as anything other than bullying.
The Paul McMullen argument – a professional troll if ever there was one – is that these people put themselves into the public eye, so they can’t complain. That’s a very convenient justification for abdicating moral responsibility, and one which is used by any number of bad eggs, from rapists to money-launderers. If you went up to someone in the street – famous or not – and mocked their grief for no apparent reason other than to stir up trouble, you wouldn’t expect them to stand there and politely take it. Hiding behind a keyboard, whether your words appear above the line or below it, does not alter the moral dimensions of what you are doing.
It’s true that the blurring of celebrity and comment, opinion and advertising, genuine outrage and professional trolling all make the ever-tricky line of free speech and hate speech a bit harder to navigate. The confusion over the integration of the public and the private online doesn’t help either. If you write a Tweet on your own Twitter page which mentions no-one but appears in other people’s feeds, is that a malicious communication? If you racially abuse a famous footballer is that a worse crime than racially abusing people on YouTube? If you call Mehdi Hasan a “goatf-cker” in a comment beneath one of his articles without really expecting him to read it, is that a malicious communication, or are you just expressing a racist opinion?
Some trolls cultivate the art of conflating abusive behaviour with opinion, precisely so they can cry foul when anyone tries to challenge them. MRAs wading into feminist blogs, or homophobes flocking to debates on homophobic bullying, armed with self-righteous persecution complexes and a wilful lack of understanding are sometimes the most upsetting trolls; the ones who call Nicky Clarke a “disgusting human being” for saying people shouldn’t feel pressured to laugh at rape jokes, for instance.
So yes, there’s a lot of hate kicking around. But the internet is a double-edged sword, and Jason Manford has shown us brilliantly how to use it. Bullying and abusive behaviour existed before the internet, and although the internet gives people new opportunities to indulge in it, as we saw when the video of Karen Klein being bullied on the bus went viral, and Klein was inundated with messages of support, even collections, when you take people’s actions out the context that says they’re acceptable, you can make people face up to their behaviour and understand why it is damaging. Paradoxically, that’s something the internet has an almost unique power to do.Tagged in: facebook, Gary Barlow, jason manford, Karen Klein, Paul McMullen, social networking, trolling, twitter
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