Charlotte Dawson has gone down a martyr for the anti-troll cause, and Piers Morgan’s television show has gone down too. It appears to be a bad week for the trolls, although the term – when applied to these two cases – is a little misleading. After all, trolling is not about saying ignorant things yourself, but forcing somebody else to say or think ignorant things. Telling Charlotte Dawson to put her face in a toaster doesn’t really provoke her to say anything particularly ignorant, it just makes you look responsible for any toaster accidents she happens to get into (incidentally, I doubt trolls were responsible for her suicide, it’s much more likely to have been the fact that her agency dropped her and she was desperately short of money).
Still, culpable or no, this hasn’t stopped the outrage-o-meter being cranked up past levels typically reserved for paedophiles and investment bankers. People are talking about all sorts of elaborate laws to prevent trolling. By people I of course mean celebrities (it is sometimes easy to forget that celebrities are people too, even if they’re Kim Kardashian). Fair enough, if I were a celebrity I’d likely be campaigning against trolls too. Hell, if I were a politician I’d be passing laws against them right now. After all, the jobs of both groups are to convince the rest of humanity to care about what they do or think, and since they – like the rest of humanity – more than occasionally think stupid or ridiculous things, I can only imagine how flooded their inboxes must be with hate-mail.
There are, of course, normal people being abused online by bullies too. But is the truly terrible stuff really done so openly? Or is it more likely to be done privately, through text messages, snapchats, Facebook messages, or in person? And what if the trolling is in retaliation to said bullying? When the Internet first popped up, school jocks and bullies got their comeuppance in all sorts of ways online with people putting up anonymous websites mocking them – and then pleading innocence when threateningly confronted about it in the schoolyard. I’d have thought that the bullies would have been the ones more likely to claim the protection of these so-called ‘anti-trolling’ laws than anybody else. Bullies in this case being those with greater legal and financial resources: celebrities, politicians, businesspeople, or just popular kids with rich parents. We already see defamation law being used this way by Colin Craig, and I suspect he must (rightly) be getting a lot of hate-tweets on account of the ignorant opinions he appears to spout on a semi-regular basis.
Oh, but those relentlessly negative comments don’t add to the discourse you say! If ‘discourse’ is the standard for any speech to be relevant and worthy of protection then I suggest we ban all sports commentary. Seriously, if some guy narrating a game – that you’re already watching unfold before your eyes in high definition – qualifies as ’discourse’, then I’m sure an ignorant rant against XYZ celebrity must qualify too. However, I’m willing to admit that sports commentary is useful to some people, and so, I suspect, trolling is useful to others – if only as a valve for the troll him/herself to let off unfiltered steam. Frank Zappa famously humiliated a morals campaigner (who was seeking to have offensive lyrics in music banned) by repeatedly insisting that his music was just ‘words’. His words were as correct then as they are today. Besides, if the words of trolls were actually threatening in nature then they’d be illegal anyway.
Should we then just walk away and expect people to grow thick skins spontaneously? Of course not, if somebody was breaking into your neigbour’s house you wouldn’t just sit on your couch and not do anything about it. And the Internet allows us to do one better, it allows us to get up and actually hit the burglar over the head with a tyre-iron (regardless of whether we actually have a tyre-iron or are capable of getting up off of the couch). I suspect Charlotte Dawson was attempting encourage this by continually publicising the abusive tweets and messages she received. To be fair, a lot people did leap to her defence on those occasions, but they didn’t really do so offline. After all, her offline talent agency abandoned her, and her offline bank was getting her to abandon her offline house too. As happy as Charlotte might have been to have had the trolls silenced by a law named after her, I suspect she’d have been happier if she’d just had a friend.