The curse of the internet trolls

The Twitter culture gives a platform to abusive bullies, as I've found - and it's time we fought back.

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The curse of the internet trolls


When Fabrice Muamba dropped to the ground during an FA Cup quarter-final on March 17, the sense of shock and sadness seemed universal. All that grace and energy felled in an instant. The hush that descended on the stadium could properly be called deathly, as paramedics fought to restart the heart of the 23-year-old Bolton Wanderers star.

In another part of the country, another young man suffered heart failure of a very different kind. Swansea student Liam Stacey went on to Twitter, the social networking site, and while the desperate struggle to keep the footballer alive was still going on, he typed: "LOL [laugh out loud]. F--- Muamba. He's dead!!!" When other Twitter users took Stacey to task for his insensitivity, the 21-year-old university biologist responded with a barrage of obscene, racist comments, which I will not ruin your breakfast by repeating. Later, when he started to worry he was in trouble, Stacey did what all internet trolls do when the torch of civilisation is shone into their dark cave: he claimed the comments had been made by a hacker. Nothing to do with me, mate!

Fortunately, it's harder to delete your Twitter page than it is to fake a guilty conscience. So the hater was duly hoist by his own hatred. Liam Stacey was arrested. On Tuesday, after pleading guilty to racially aggravated harassment, he was jailed for 56 days. That's a pretty stiff sentence for being a moron.

I must admit that, having had some grief from Twitter trolls myself, I cheered. Suddenly, here was the cocky, bad-ass internet warrior, stripped of his protective anonymity, shaking and sobbing like the inadequate little individual he really is. Not so LOL any more, eh Liam?

The Muamba-Stacey case feels like a watershed. Is it, as some have claimed, a wild over-reaction to a drunken lout and an attack on free speech? Or does it mark the moment when society decided it had finally had enough and began to enforce some rules of decency in the lawless bandit country of the internet? Guardians of unfettered expression may react to Liam Stacey's conviction with that oft-quoted defence of the offensive, "I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it". Not me. Not when I've seen for myself how the anything-goes online culture is a bullies' charter, emboldening raucously amoral people to terrorise the weak, insult the strong and desecrate the dead.

Let me explain what happened to me. The week before last, I wrote in my column about Tony Nicklinson, who has locked-in syndrome. Mr Nicklinson is bringing a case to the High Court which, if it succeeds, will change the law on murder and allow a doctor to put him and others like him to death. It is a very sad, vexed case. Frankly, if it was my loved one who was suffering a long, drawn-out agony I would be tempted to pull the plug on the respirator and take the consequences myself. I just happen to believe that enshrining the right to die in law would feel like yet another pressure on elderly and disabled people, who are already treated as a damned nuisance. That's just my opinion and you are more than welcome to disagree with me.

To my Telegraph address came a flurry of emails, the usual lively mixture of support and furious disagreement. Kevin French, a reader with severe cerebral palsy, argued the case against the right to die much better than I had. Kevin, who was typing his email into a laptop with a head-pointer, said that, although doctors might well describe him as "locked-in" like Tony Nicklinson, he enjoyed his life as a student choreographer, communicating the dance steps via computer, and he did not wish "to have a death sentence rendered upon people like me".

I was still thinking about Kevin's message when I went on to Twitter and found my name next to a well-known gynaecological insult. I was bewildered. Who was this guy I'd never heard of - one Doug Stanhope - and why, if he disagreed so strongly with my column, didn't he find a way of saying so which didn't involve calling me a Sarah Lund? I tweeted back that Mr Stanhope was welcome to call me wrong, ill-informed or even stupid, but I really didn't like being called a four-letter word by a stranger.

Knowing what I know now, that was a bit like Anne of Green Gables sending a lavender-scented notelet objecting to the table manners of Conan the Barbarian. Stanhope turned out to be an American "comedian": being horrible and offensive is his job description. For example, in his stage routine, Stanhope described the birth of Sarah Palin's Down's syndrome baby thus: "Threw that spastic out of that 'tard [retard] launcher ---- of yours." Compared to that, Stanhope's next tweet to me was practically Fred Astaire to Ginger: "Allison Pearson, I just went Christian just to pray you get a fetid ovarian cyst," he wrote.

All of this would have been unsettling enough, like a drunk roaring in your face in a dark alley, but Doug invited his unmerry men to join in the fun. Stanhope has 83,000 followers on Twitter and he directed them to "read this ---- Allison Pearson's column", helpfully providing a link. Over the next 48 hours, I found out quite a lot about Stanhope fans as they swarmed over my Twitter timeline like killer ants. Mostly North American males in their twenties with names like Bradley, Ryan and Monster (there's a clue there, I reckon), they post nihilistic, ugly descriptions of themselves. Strangers to grammar, in their profile pictures they wear balaclavas, outsized sunglasses or go for the smirk-casual look, with a Jack Nicholson in The Shining grimace. LOL!!

These lads laid into me - or, at least, into an idea bearing my name - with escalating obscenity and cruelty. About 30 messages down, I found one that announced, "Pearson's kids should be Tetraplegic". Another wished me a slow, painful death. Clearly, there was some kind of competition going on to impress and flatter Stanhope. Who knows, one day they could be so amusingly vile that Doug himself would retweet them to his followers; the troll equivalent of a Papal Blessing.

For readers who think Twitter sounds ghastly, I should say at this point that my little corner of it is like a really nice coffee shop, which just happens to have regulars from across the country and around the world. I follow soldiers and teachers and myriad mums who make me laugh because they are invariably hunting the same missing boy's trainers as I am, whether they are in Scunthorpe or southern California. Various authors share setbacks and triumphs and otherwise keep each other company in what can be a lonely, solitary business. At its best, Twitter makes you feel what the poet Louis MacNeice called "the drunkenness of things being various". I love it. Or I used to love it until I ran into the trolls; what we might call, with apologies to MacNeice, the viciousness of various thugs being drunken.

Tapping out his odious tweets in South Wales, Liam Stacey might as well have inhabited a different moral universe from his target, Fabrice Muamba. What Stacey was doing was the cyber equivalent of kicking a man when he's down, and he believed he could do so with impunity. Online, no one can hear the boot going in. But the bruised and bloodied casualties are all around us. A seasoned newspaper columnist like me with a supportive editorial team and a loving family and friends can weather the storm; but don't be young, don't be fragile and don't be vulnerable when they come after you.

The rise in teenage suicides related to internet abuse was tackled by Richard Bacon in an excellent documentary, The Anti-Social Network, which aired on BBC Three last week. Bacon, who has his own horrible Twitter stalker, tracked down one troll whose alleged hobby is adding stomach-churning comments to tribute websites dedicated to young people who have lost their lives. A mother and father, still shell-shocked by grief, told Bacon how Facebook photographs of their beloved son had been doctored so that he had a noose around his neck. LOL!!!

The advice given to anyone who comes under attack from internet trolls is to lay low, play dead. Wait for them to find someone else to hate, which they surely will. I disagree. We need to speak out about the disgusting personal abuse and try to find a way of patrolling it. Spite and impotent fury should not be allowed to hide under the magnificent cloak of free speech. Doesn't a baby Down's boy have a right not to be called a retard by a so-called comedian? Our children and their children will conduct their lives online in a way we can hardly imagine, and they will need rules and maybe even laws to protect them.

"The internet was better before normal people started to join," complained one of my Twitter trolls almost wistfully. What he means by better was worse. Like the Wild West, the internet is a thrilling new frontier that needs sheriffs to enforce civilised behaviour. Trolls need to think twice before shooting from the lip. If nothing else, the very public punishment of Liam Stacey should make your average hater think twice before spewing bile into someone else's nice coffee shop.

Strangely, given my recent experience, I find myself thinking that Liam Stacey should not have been put in prison. Although I share the revulsion of the Swansea student body at his abhorrent tweets, kicking the kid off his university course will merely serve to ruin his life, not make him a better person. Sadly, Liam will not be the first or the last young man to have a few beers, get behind a keyboard and lose all sense of humanity.

Far more effective, surely, to take Liam Stacey to the hospital bedside of the good, kind Fabrice Muamba and make him stand there, repeat the callous words that he tweeted when Fabrice was suspended between life and death, and apologise. Whose heart was it that failed that day? Even the troll will know.

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