Internet trolls are infuriating and depressing but giving them asbos is not the answer

It’s unworkable to expect the police to keep tabs on abusive behaviour

Grace Dent
Monday 09 February 2015 19:28
A man uses a laptop
A man uses a laptop

As a frequent internet user, I find it initially difficult not to be cheered by MPs’ vows to usher in internet “asbos”. When I call myself a frequent internet user, I actually mean continuous. Once a proud 1990s early adopter of all things web, nowadays I’m just another weary, wifi-dependent Twittering, Googling, tech-junkie.

And if, like me, you’re on the internet all day, one will see the very best of mankind, but also humanity’s worst, distilled into an effervessant flow of mispelled, gormless tweets. It’s hard to read the tech-propelled mind-farts of anti-semites, meninists, back-bedroom Jihadis, Madeline McCann obsessives, UniLad misogynists or Gamergate oddballs without dreaming of asbos raining down like confetti, smothering them all.

Particularly the ilk of human who adds their wit to a Twitter hashtag entitled #HitlerWasRight. What would be more satisfying than to find his or her ISP and Wifi supply unilaterally turned off and the police monitoring their movements to stop them finding a loophole to begin their Holocaust-lolz all over again? But if you’re a normally rational person thinking like this, the fact is it’s time to close your laptop, take a digital holiday and breathe some fresh air. To be blunt: these wankers are turning you into a wanker too.

Better, more efficient ways to block and ignore prats on Twitter and Facebook, giving them one chance to annoy you, might make our individual lives a little smoother. But asking the police and country courts to act as school monitor in the vast internet playground is unworkable.

Internet asbos – although they make MPs sound switched-on and diligent - will do precisely nothing to halt the flow of hate from the sort of damaged and poorly educated individuals who gain large amounts of self-worth from typing it.

I was grimly fascinated the other day to find out that one man who has targeted me on social media for years – him sending abuse, me quietly blocking without response – was arrested and charged for similar offences years ago. It hadn’t slowed him down remotely. He, like many other offenders, clearly saw this arrest as a badge of honour. It increased his sense of self-identity as a brave speaker of truth.

At one point, back in the late 1990s when I first started appearing on TV and began receiving regular anonymous “hate speech” messages, I was scared of these people. Now I feel nothing but sadness.

The definitive piece of writing on meeting persistent internet oddballs is Lindy West’s account of tracking down and chatting to a man who pretended to be her dead father to upset and terrify her. I can’t help wondering how some of the #hitlerwasright brigade would feel if faced with an Auschwitz survivor. Or Ouch-Fits as I saw it mispelled, by the ilk of people MPs are suggesting we take through the courts, then stuff into already packed, failing prisons.

Not to mention that every time we asbo one of these people, the mere sight of the pathetic wretch at court turns them into a hero for Freedom of Speech enthusiasts who don’t agree with what they say, but will fight to the death for the right of a knobhead to send a Facebook message saying, “Hitler Was Right” at an 88-year-old holocaust survivor, because, y’know, Je Suis Charlie and all that.

Of course, the uncomfortable truth is that in Britain it’s not against any law to be so stupid, cruel and misguided to think “Hitler was right”, or “It’s not rape if she’s drunk”. It’s not the police’s job to make these people gentler, kinder more empathetic folk with hobbies more rewarding than sitting indoors spewing hate. That was, at one point, their parents’ job and they failed miserably, so now it’s down to the idiot to take a look in the mirror and wonder why they feel so continuously awful.

Besides, the one thing I know do about internet warriors is that they’re not the ones to really worry about - tempting though it is to lie awake replaying the rotten things they say. The internet warrior isn’t a natural “do-er” of things. They are confused, nocturnal and often alcohol-fuelled. They are a mummy’s back-bedroom-dwelling moron bashing text speak drivel into semen-encrusted second-hand Dell laptops, before sleeping the daytime sleep of the non-righteous dimwit.

These people are infuriating and depressing but not any sort of actual threat. When someone sent me a message saying they’d put a bomb outside my house I absolutely refused to stop eating my takeaway curry, or go outside and check my wheely-bins. I had a strong feeling the threat was sent by a 14-year-old boy, possibly in Illinois or Utah, who had read my name on some “I hate wimmin let’s throw rocks at them” message board, sent the tweet and was currently watching Anger Management while waiting for his mummy to make his special favourite din-dins.

These people are not potential tyrants, they are not motivated power-grabbers or they are not vote winners. They’re not the tomorrow's dictators. The ilk of people determined to have power - the actually terrifying ones – are wandering the streets of Britain right now armed with election leaflets, tweeting utterly wholesome things like “Great day canvassing! Met a gorgeous labrador named Oscar”. Or, “Ggetting some great feedback about my traffic light plans for the Theakston Pass roundabout”. When the Government starts giving asbos to these people for ringing my doorbell at 8am they’ll have my support.

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