The CEO of Twitter is right – the site does 'suck' at protecting its users from trolls. But what can we do?

Twitter trolls will never go away, so you might as well get used to them  – or just log off

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The Independent Online

The boss of Twitter is on a personal crusade to eliminate trolls, saying that his company “sucks” at dealing with them. Call me a cynic, but isn’t this sudden bout of brutal honesty motivated by a hard-headed business decision to stem bad press and reduce the number of disgruntled and bruised users fleeing the service?

There are the women who’ve been threatened with rape and mutilation; the school kids bullied anonymously until they self-harm; the grieving parents of dead soldiers and missing children who become the butt of sick jokes and hideous innuendo; the sons and daughters of well-known actors and telly presenters, slagged off for their bloodline, as if they were responsible for their mums and dads.

Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo says he’s going to fix the problem, writing: “I take full responsibility ... it’s nobody’s fault but mine, and it’s embarrassing.”

Mea culpa! Sadly, I doubt Costolo will be able to sanitise and edit his monster – it might be a bit easier to report abuse these days, but every high-profile woman I know attracts a fat load of daily sarcasm, snotty remarks, outright insults and disgusting insults. Block one person and the troll pops up under a new tag.

Along with the slop there are genuinely friendly people. Thanks to Twitter, millions are raised for worthy causes; you have instant access to all shades of opinion – free speech totally unchecked.

It’s an essential tool that will be used to galvanise cynical voters in the next election. I was a late convert, and luckily I’m thick-skinned. After an appearance on men-friendly TV shows like QI, the response is vitriolic. Last week, one chap spent days tweeting me the C-word at hourly intervals, and in the end (reluctantly) I blocked him, but that sad sap will be thrilled he got my attention.

Twitter produces drivel, but many lonely people find it indispensable. It allows contact without commitment or judgement. As for using the law to deal with stalking and threats, the police have enough on their plate without prosecuting trolls. Twitter can’t be put back in its box; it will just die a natural death when a new shouty way of communicating comes along. Many have already migrated to Instagram or Snapchat.

All these sites have their dark sides, because they reflect the kind of people we’ve become. Self-obsessed, cynical, restless. Maybe it’s a good time to reread Marshall McLuhan, the man who coined the phrase “the medium is the message” back in 1964. The Canadian philosopher was once very fashionable, but these days most iPhone users have probably never heard of the man who coined the phrase “the global village”, and predicted the World Wide Web. McLuhan was fascinated by the dynamic effects of new technology on society – often in ways we could never predict: more pointless communication and less real conversation. Instant reaction, less reflection.

Andy Warhol said everyone would be famous for 15 minutes – and now everyone can have an self-important opinion. Twitter, like the internet, will never be policed in a meaningful way. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.


Thanks for the trippy trip down memory lane

Critics of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice have complained the film is too long and extremely confusing. Yes, it runs almost two-and-a-half hours and the plot – based on a Thomas Pynchon novel – is labyrinthine. Funnily enough, this makes for a very relaxing evening.

Set in the early Seventies, it follows the convoluted antics of a pothead private investigator in a series of confrontations with the LA Police Department. It reminded me of good times spent hanging out in California, and I was happy to get in touch with my (rarely outed) inner hippy. One particularly memorable 4 July was spent watching the freak show on the boardwalk in LA’s Venice Beach with the artist Larry Bell. Our evening started with joints and progressed to peyote.

Inherent Vice’s leading man, Joaquin Phoenix, looks exactly like a young Larry, right down to the hat. Like Wolf Hall, this drama at least treats the audience like intelligent adults.


Alternative guide to Valentine’s Day

Further proof that the heterosexual male of the species could becoming irrelevant?

Valentine’s Day used to be a source of anxiety, another chance to fail at being popular. An opportunity to pretend you were having hot sex, even if the reality was a night in with prosecco, crumpets slathered in hummus and a DVD. Luckily, this year will be different – 14 February has been chosen to launch Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film of Fifty Shades of Grey, and all over the UK, women are block-booking seats for a night out with their girlfriends.

I fear they will be disappointed, because it’s rumoured that the film features only 20 minutes of bonking during its 100 minutes running time. Mind you, that’s probably 15 minutes more than most of us would expect at the end of a night out anyway.

The film’s S&M theme is being tailored to the mums market. On ITV’s This Morning, Phillip Schofield and Christine Bleakley simpered over a range of erotic bedroom “toys” this week, tested by a panel of their viewers. This resulted in a reprimand from the Daily Mail, which thought that the sight of nipple clamps before lunch was highly questionable.

In our uniquely British way, we have turned S&M into something unthreatening and cosy. As for the Valentine’s “date”, who wants to go to a quiet restaurant full of tables for two? One year, I went to Sketch for a “desperate and dateless” dinner with three male gay singletons. We were the only people in the room having a fun night. Mind you, eating eight courses all coloured red and pink was a bit of a challenge.


A victim of our terribly unequal modern society

This week, one story really affected me. Somehow it sums up the glaring inequalities in modern society.

Malcolm Burge was a 66-year-old retired gardener, living in a lodge at the City of London Cemetery. Changes to the benefits system left him owing £800 after Newham council mistakenly continued to pay his weekly housing benefit at a higher rate than he was due under new rules.

Mr Burge, who was penniless, with no savings or assets, did not know what to do. When the council ruthlessly continued to demand the money, he became depressed and suicidal, and although he called their offices seeking help, none was forthcoming.

After Mr Burge committed suicide, the council claimed it was “overwhelmed” by a huge number of similar cases and said it was “sorry” if it had contributed to his death.

This was the week that Starbucks finally declared a modest profit on receipts of £400m, and Ofgem told us to make sandwiches to save the money to pay our energy bills. Apparently, a packed lunch can save you £735 a year, and giving up takeaway coffees another £676.

Of course, you need to be earning money to buy the ingredients for the packed lunches, pay for the coffee and turn on the overpriced heating in the first place. I mourn for Mr Burge, a victim of our times.