In 2013, the Australian journalist Ginger Gorman became the subject of an online hate campaign.
In 2010, she had interviewed two gay men, seemingly an ordinary couple, about their adoption of a young boy. Three years later the men were convicted of child sexual exploitation; they had been involved in an international paedophile network.
Naturally Gorman was mortified that she had, however inadvertently, given these men a platform. But a few days after the conviction Gorman began to be inundated by tweets from ″conservatives″ saying she was a paedophile collaborator, and, equally horrifying to Gorman, this online campaign linked the paedophilia to a ″gay lifestyle″.
Two years after being the target of a prolonged and distressing hate campaign, which extend to threats of violence, Gorman began to wonder what motivated internet trolls. To get out of victim mode, she began to research a book and she sort out prolific trolls to interview, along the way meeting some scary individuals, such as a man called “weev”, a self-described “professional racist” and sociopath.
The single most significant thing I learned from Gorman’s book Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its human fallout is that trolling is far from being the activity of bedroom-trapped loners who go online in the dead of night. Trolling is largely a group activity and is shaped by group dynamics. Trolls may be part of highly organised syndicates, or looser networks. These groups will have different aims, but group working is the basic template. More on this later.
The standard definition of a troll is someone who aims to provoke a reaction by posting random, disruptive or offensive posts. For the troll, humiliating or confusing people is fun. But, as Gorman argues, trolling is a spectrum of behaviours, with mild pranks at one end and hate crimes at the other. Gorman calls those who set out to do ″real life harm″ predator trolls.
Some trolls claim they have political objectives. One of Gorman’s informants, ″Craig″, spends his time going after public figures knowing that, having made themselves an object of attention, they have a certain vulnerability. And public discourse being what it is (low grade, tabloid standard) even very wild ″stories″ about such figures will get traction.
Likewise some political people behave like trolls. Trump’s combative lie-telling and stock empty moral phrases (″very bad″, ″shameful″ etc.) are the obvious example.
Then there is the trolling that which is directly linked to ″real life″ relationships (or more usually ex- and imaginary relationships), such as cyber stalking. However I’m not sure how useful it is to call technology-aided abuse trolling.
Given this wide spectrum of behaviour, maybe what defines trolling now is the gang-like structure which underpins a lot of it.
Craig is part of a small loose gang. Another of Gorman′s informants, ″Mark″, is a member of an international trolling syndicate. The modus operandi of Mark’s group is to pick on vulnerable people, such as rape victims, people with autism or people with mental illnesses. They know what to say to make those people feel unsafe.
Mark has a certain amount of empathy – enough to know what is wrong by ordinary social standards and what upsets people. According to Mark it is precisely because he has this insight that he trolls so well.
The intended effect of trolling is to dehumanise. The targets of trolls become bad people who deserve everything they get. And if they complain, they are “snowflakes” or similar. Trolling in groups will make the weaker characters feel stronger and thus reinforce the “anything goes” blame-the-victim mentality. Trolls themselves, after they enter this world, become dehumanised, they become nihilists, their behaviour is reckless and often self-harming. People who are depressed slip further into depression.
Gorman is compelled to consider thoroughly how to tackle the problem but she remains, I think, somewhat stuck. She notes that although the worst of the trolls behave like criminals, operating behind anonymity, creating multiple social media accounts and identities to go about their business, neither the law or the complaints systems of the social media companies seem willing to keep pace with the trolls’ outputs.
For the police there is a problem of capacity. Most people do not have the financial resources to access the law. Social media companies are monopolies and they do not want to regulate themselves out of business – if they are seen to attack “free speech”, they will lose users and advertising revenue.
Gorman points to the cultural issues underlying this lack of will to deal with the trolls. There is a lack of knowledge about the impacts of online amorality. The facile idea that ″sticks and stones may hurt us but names never will″ is also a factor. Victims are often told to get offline. Yet if someone was being bullied in “real life”, advice to hide in shadows and avoid your bully would be completely unacceptable.
In my view the left also has a problem with group-led online trolling behaviours which it is not in a fit state to face up to.
At one extreme there is Red London, an anonymous Facebook page which styles itself as ultra-Stalinist (e.g. praising North Korea). Three years ago Red London made Workers’ Liberty one of their targets, accusing us of condoning paedophilia. The accusation was ludicrous, but was shared by left-wing people as a means to express political rivalry (that is, in elections).
It was a way for a small group of nihilists ( what else can you be if in the 21st century you praise Stalin’s crimes?), to isolate members of Workers’ Liberty. Unfortunately the method was effective in a sectarian milieu, in a faction-ridden Labour Party, and on a left that is intolerant of non-conforming political people (as Workers’ Liberty are on some political issues). In short, lies can be told about bad people.
In the last week of October a small group of Labour Party members on Twitter have organised a flurry of tweets accusing us of all sorts. This time the trolling may be aimed as spreading confusion among and breaking up the broad group of people who oppose Brexit in the Labour Party. But who knows? – Trolling is never transparent.
Workers’ Liberty is one component — and importantly, an effective one – in anti-Brexit circles within the labour movement. The people in this trolling drive may be behaving politically, inasmuch as they may aim to soften the anti-Brexit message that Labour will make in a forthcoming election. But their methods are despicable.
Members of this little gang, operating under their group dynamic, try to intimidate people by making them scared to associate with Workers’ Liberty. One tweeter said that anyone who associates with or organises with Workers’ Liberty should be thrown out of the Labour Party. This beyond silly. How is she going to police that?
Workers’ Liberty members are writers, trade unionists, community organisers, Labour members, demonstrators, strikers and neighbours. Between us we say hello to, argue with, share gossip with, laugh with, are sometimes rude to, go for a drink with, help, support, and get support from, thousands of people who will also be Labour Party members.
Improving the culture and the basic civility of how labour movement people use social media will be central to improving the democratic culture of the labour movement as a whole. We can no longer afford to be casual and “unconscious” users of Facebook and Twitter. Maybe the answer is to get off Twitter (as one comrade put it to me, “I don’t use Twitter because I don’t hate myself”).
Thinking about cultural change requires sorting out the complexities of how political organisations and people should be held to account.
If political organisations mess up then they should own their mistakes and take steps to correct them. They should be ready to receive criticism on social media, as in every other sphere. Moreover, I would argue, political groups should expect more intense scrutiny than individuals. But the routine reckless misreporting of what the AWL says and does is another matter.
Ironically the AWL is much more open and more transparent about how it organises than most political groups (including the Labour Party).
Our constitution, and code of conduct (and a self-critical response to a report of historical sexual assault) are easy to find on our website. We have debates among ourselves in this newspaper, and often print views very critical of our politics.
What is to be done about trolling? Should we tolerate it in order to preserve free speech? The problem with that is that free speech requires the forums for speech not to be clogged up with lies and misdirections.
Some of the solutions Gorman suggests are: making it a legal requirement for social media platforms to have a duty of care; that all social media accounts should be identity checked, that the monopolies that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have should be broken up.
But solutions have downsides. For example many people need to be anonymous online (and even to withhold identification data that will be kept confidential) for reasons of personal safety.
As for the labour movement, we need to update rule books to take account of harmful social media behaviour. From experience of multiple complaints taken to the Labour Party by AWL comrades the Party’s systems are either broken or biased. A lack of transparency makes it impossible to say which. Complaints and correspondence about serious issues (e.g. about real life violence) are simply ignored.
This may be a capacity issue. As Gorman says, few, if any of the institutions to which we might look to for help, are right now able to keep pace with the problem.
Trolling has got out of hand.
Slurs and truth
A revived attempt at a social media storm against Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty is now underway.
This attempt seems aimed at dividing the pro-Remain camp in the Labour Party, by demonising Workers’ Liberty and (by association) Labour for a Socialist Europe and Another Europe is Possible.
It picks up on agitation long carried out, by a different group of people as far as we can see, through the anonymous Facebook page Red London. That is now somewhat discredited and subdued, though it still carries, for example, photoshopped images of demonstrations with flags saying “Trots are all pedos”.
The social media agitation builds on a real incident, but one which was not in reality as described in that agitation.