The Tendency to Exaggerate Online Bigotry

Reports of online abuse often greatly exaggerate its prevalence in order to generate clicks, support a narrative, or justify censorship

This week, Britain has seen another moral panic over racism, resulting from online abuse of black footballers in the wake of England’s football defeat on Sunday. Having followed such panics over many years, I could have written Monday’s script in advance - and some commentators clearly did. Britain has, in fact, been in the grip of a series of moral panics over racism for some years: at least since the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police in 2014, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This narrative, which has seeped from the far-left into the mainstream media over the years needs constant feeding, and so will seize on almost anything to sustain itself. This has resulted in countless, spurious claims of racism - many of which are so ludicrous that only the true believer can take them seriously. We have had racist rice, racist burgers, racist hair, racist t-shirts (which weren’t actually racist), racist chicken boxes… in normal times, these claims would be the subject of satire and mockery. But these aren’t normal times, and people are not acting rationally. Given the media’s newfound habit of finding racism literally everywhere, then any story, however trivial or questionable, will be amplified.

So the racist abuse of the footballers who missed penalties for England was inevitably going to become the story of the week. It quickly became clear that, although there was, inevitably, abuse online, there wasn’t a lot. A nasty tweet was sent by an estate agent, and he quickly became a media demon, and was suspended from his job. Twitter reported they had deleted over 1,000 tweets. But that is a tiny amount, and can be generated by a few bots (or a few morons) in minutes. But it was clear, almost immediately, that most of the nastiest tweets were from overseas, and appeared in many cases to have been generated by bots.

This is not so surprising - we have known for years that Russian (and now probably Chinese) authorities make use of bot farms to intervene in pretty much any western political discussion, from Trump to Brexit. When the western mass media is desperate to report racism stories, it is incredibly easy to feed it the ‘evidence’ it needs. Long gone are the days of journalistic fact-checking or quantifying such claims. What we didn’t see this week was a “racist Britain” angrily punishing people of colour for Rashford’s and Saka’s penalty misses. The reverse happened - an outpouring of love and support for the young players. If only this had become the story, rather than the pathetic rantings of a few pathetic individuals.

Some years ago, I watched and documented an almost-identical moral panic unfold. That time, the story was about online misogyny rather than online racism. Then, as now, the media reported the story according to the needs of a political narrative rather than any regard for journalistic values. Then, as now, free speech via social media was identified as a threat to an ‘oppressed group’. Then, as now, the identified problem (which was so small as to be almost imaginary) was used to back calls for attacks on privacy and free speech. The following exerpt is taken from my book Porn Panic, and outlines incidents that took place in 2014.

Catching up with with an old schoolfriend in early-2014 and making general smalltalk, I was surprised when he asked me: “What about these Twitter trolls then?” My friend, a financial adviser, was never much interested in technology, and yet here he was using a word once only known to hardcore geeks like myself. ‘Troll’ is an old term used by the online community to refer to people who make deliberately provocative posts on forums in order to disrupt discussions and stir up animosity. Those who rise to such provocation are generally reminded to not ‘feed the troll’ by responding to them.

The fact that my friend was using the term was a sign that it had entered mainstream discourse (though, as is usually the case, its meaning had become twisted in the process). The story that brought trolling into the mainstream was that of Caroline Criado-Perez, a journalist, who had lent her support to an online campaign to feature a woman on the new £5 banknote.

According to a journalist friend who watched events unfold, Criado-Perez had come in for pointless and sometimes very nasty abuse from a handful of people on Twitter. So far, so unsurprising: ‘armchair warriors’ are legion online, and always have been. People who are shy and retiring in real life become infinitely braver when they’re anonymous and far away from their victim. As a veteran of online political discourse myself, I’ve been threatened with death before, and called pretty much every name imaginable. While this can be an unpleasant experience first time round, it is important to remind oneself that nobody intending to actually do harm to anyone will make their intentions known, publicly, in advance. Given that users are easily traceable (unless they have very good technical knowledge), and that making threats online is a crime in the UK, to do such a thing is a sign of nothing more than stupidity.

Criado-Perez was the perfect victim: female, white, blonde and middle-class. Some of the tweets she received were alleged to contain rape threats: now the long-awaited opportunity for an anti-Twitter panic had arrived. Although earlier generations of feminists had been strident in their insistence that women should be treated equally, rather than infantilised and offered special treatment, the mainstream feminist message has subtly morphed to embrace the opposite position. Abuse of women online is falsely held up as evidence of unacceptable misogyny, while abuse of men (which studies suggest is, in fact, more common) appears to offend no group in particular. The old, patriarchal idea that women (and especially young, pretty women) are the ‘weaker sex’, and need special protection, is now a mainstream feminist message.

Armed with Criado-Perez’s photograph, the media went into moral panic overdrive. ‘Abusive Twitter trolls’ and ‘misogynistic trolls’ made the headlines. Arrests were quickly made, and the media campaign continued unrelenting for several months. For those caught unaware by the reporting, it must have seemed as though ‘Twitter abuse’  and ‘Internet trolls’ had just appeared out of nowhere: the implication being that a platform allowing free speech was somehow making previously nice people into dangerous animals, so proving that unregulated free speech is unacceptable.

Eventually, two individuals, a young man and a young woman, stood trial for abusing Criado-Perez. By the time of the trial, the media had apparently forgotten the ‘torrent’ and ‘barrage’ of horrific abuse that had earlier been reported, and accepted that two scapegoats would be enough. The prosecution told the court that “Caroline Criado-Perez has suffered life-changing psychological effects from the abuse which she received on Twitter”.

That being the case, one must sympathise for the journalist; she is clearly a person of particularly sensitive disposition. Thankfully though, she recovered quickly enough, and even used her newfound fame to build a public profile as a journalist and feminist activist.

The pair of ‘Twitter trolls’ - Isabella Sorley, 23 and John Nimmo, 25 - were found guilty, and sentenced to 12 weeks and eight weeks in jail, respectively. The two cut pathetic figures: both overweight and unattractive; their photographs were happily plastered across the news media alongside those of the slim and pretty Criado-Perez. Sorley had 21 previous convictions for being drunk and disorderly, but the likelihood she was a depressed alcoholic was not mentioned.

The fact that the worst of the abusers was a woman was also inconvenient, given the ‘torrent of online misogyny’ narrative that had developed. Criado-Perez later said that Sorley had been raised in a “society steeped in misogyny”, and so was conditioned to hate women. This is what tends to be referred to as a ‘feminist analysis’. As with religious ‘reasoning’, the conclusion of such an analysis is decided in advance: Misogyny; then evidence is cherry-picked to fit this outcome. It seems highly unlikely that Sorley’s motivation was, in fact, that she hated Criado-Perez because of her gender, but in the age of dumbed-down identity politics, such explanations are easy and fashionable, and the true reasons are generally more complex and less gratifying.

In fact, the trial coverage reeked of sneering class snobbery. The greatest impetus for censorship tends to come where unacceptable lines are crossed, and there is no line more fiercely defended by the middle classes than that between themselves and the unwashed masses. Before the birth of the digital network, the middle classes could be confident that they could maintain their distance from the lower classes - and they have always gone out of their way to do so, by choosing where to work, live, eat, drink, dance, holiday, educate their children, and so on. The Internet, and specifically social media, created an unprecedented space in which the likes of Isabella Sorley might encounter someone like Caroline Criado-Perez. No wonder the journalistic and political classes have become so obsessed with the problem of ‘Internet trolls’.

But the coverage largely ignored the vital question of whether people should be jailed for causing offence. Is it the job of the law to censor public discourse in order to cater for the needs of the most easily offended? Certainly, we as a society have become far less tolerant of unpleasant behaviour in the past couple of decades, and have elevated things that were once merely seen as annoying to the level of total unacceptability.

Behind the scenes, prosecutions for ‘trolling’ have increased sharply. In 2004, the year after ‘malicious communications’ were criminalised by the Communications Act, 143 people were convicted. By 2014, the number had risen to 1,209. When the Labour opposition has had anything to say about this, it has typically been to accuse the government of ‘doing too little, too late’. In November 2014, the Labour MP John Mann went further, suggesting a complete Internet ban for ‘trolls’. This would be akin, in the pre-Internet age, to sealing a person’s mouth and eyes shut if they said mean things to people in public. When it comes to free speech, there has been a virtual absence of intelligent political debate, no word of caution about rising authoritarianism, or about the slippery slope of censorship. Parliamentarians, backed by political activists and journalists from across the political spectrum, appear to be engaged in a race to the bottom. Security and the ‘online safety’ of women and children have come to not only trump liberty, but entirely sideline it.