WARNING: Contains strong language
In an episode of the cartoon television series South Park -- "Le Petit Tourette" -- one of its characters, Cartman, overhears a child with Tourette's syndrome swearing. Thinking that this is the best excuse ever for being able to swear and be racist without fear of punishment, Cartman proceeds to pretend to have Tourette's. But as the episode progresses what starts out as a funny joke for him soon turns into a Freudian reversal when he can't actually stop saying exactly what is on his mind, leading to him involuntarily reveal that he has touched another boy's penis and has fantasies about one of the girls at school.
The recent spate of "trolling" on Twitter seem to me to have echoes of this scenario. The trolls are like Cartman -- men (usually, but not exclusively) using the currently chaotic and inefficiently moderated forum of Twitter in much in the same way as Cartman uses Tourette's, as permission to express the forbidden thought -- "I can say whatever I want!..." Cartman sings delightedly. "I've got the golden ticket!"
But there has been a real sense of unhinged mania in the frenetic activity of Twitter "trolling" in the past week, which has shown no sign of abating. Caitlin Moran claims that on a bad day she can get up to 50 tweets an hour that are violent or abusive. While no one wants to be on the receiving end of these messages, anyone who writes "Rape threats? Don't flatter yourself. Call the cops. We'll rape them too. YOU B*TCH! YO P**SY STANK!" or ridiculous and faintly surreal bomb threats, is certainly not winning at life.
Judging from her Twitter feed, for Caroline Criado-Perez it's turned into a full time job, lobbing all those comments back to where they came, reporting and blocking people who only pop up again somewhere else like a maddening whack-a-mole. But this is unsustainable in the long term and the people who are engaging in this kind of behavior are certainly getting off on the attention. As one might expect the general "troll" profile in this instance is immature or disenfranchised men with a misogynist agenda.
Criado-Perez deserves a medal for taking them on, and especially for exposing the "don't feed the trolls" line which has been a convenient way of allowing their hate speak to thrive. But there is more than just a "report abuse" function needed to stop this from happening. The sustained nature of these attacks is frightening as is the way in which Twitter has responded. Yes, it's a matter for the police, but there are simply too many of them to arrest everyone and the abusers know this.
Twitter has been caught on the back foot. First in tolerating it under the fig leaf of freedom of speech (since when has threatening someone with rape or violence been expressing an opinion?), and then by treating the matter with a diffidence only possible in the Rayndian environment of Silicon Valley. That it's taken them so long to respond is indicative of their inability to grasp the seriousness of the situation.
But the problem for Twitter is that these people are in danger of turning the platform into the equivalent of a manky, crime ridden shopping center -- full of sketchy types, obscene graffiti and broken street furniture -- and who wants to have a conversation there? The platform technologists have a responsibility to provide a solution, and to start acting like the publishers that they patently are. They have responded, as any company getting bad PR must, but whether this will actually change the atmosphere on Twitter -- as well as misogyny there are serious issues with anti-Semitism and racism too -- remains to be seen.
There is also the sense that this is a backlash against a series of high profile social media-driven campaigns -- not just Caroline Criado-Perez's banknote campaign, but the campaign to tone down lads' mags, to get rid of Page 3 (please, not soon enough), and to do something about the freely available violent pornography on the internet.
The so-called "trolls" themselves evidently think they are being in some way edgy or humorous -- the kids who never grew out of making fart jokes -- but much like Cartman, given license to say anything, they end up revealing much more about themselves than they ever meant to.
In their unhinged attempts at "humor" they also expose the discourse of a violent, knee-jerk misogyny abroad in our wider pornified culture, which brings to mind Germaine Greer's famous statement "women have very little idea how much men hate them." Well -- thanks to the access to the collective unconscious that is Twitter -- we do now. There is even a suggestion that some of these men are operating in a systematic group way much like online pedophiles, and how long before they act out on one of their hateful fantasies?
The more uncomfortable question to answer is why, and what can be done about it. While women wait for Twitter to sort itself out, troll-shaming seems like a good place to start as Mary Beard proved recently when she retweeted abuse saying: "Sorry about that nasty retweet. But I'm not going to be terrorized." The Mirror reported that another Twitter user then offered to send Beard the address of the troll's mother -- at which point the troll apologized. We also need to galvanize the men who don't hate women -- as I've always thought Greer's comment was missing the word "some" -- guys, we need your help here too. Maybe someone should start a Twitter campaign.