Back when I was a diary columnist, they’d publish my email address in the paper every day. I did love the emails from lunatics. And we’re talking proper nuts here, not just xenophobes, or people with unusually strident views about Israel. My favourite was a guy from Glasgow, whose emails were all either impenetrable tracts about global macro-economics, or detailed, punctuation-free recreations of the arguments he’d had that week with his GP, fellow lunatics, or the local branch of the Hari Krishnas. I remember getting bored one afternoon and looking him up on Lexis Nexus. He’d twice been published on the letters page of the Daily Express.
I suppose they’ve probably gone off email, the lunatics. Just like the way they went off letters. I haven’t had a proper letter from a madman in years. There was this one guy who used to write to me every couple of months. Well, I say ‘write’, but there weren’t actually many words. He’d usually sellotape a photograph of my face on the envelope, instead of writing my name, which was a nice touch. Inside, he’d take an article I’d written, glue it onto the middle of a big white piece of paper, and extrapolate from it with swooping felt-tip diagrams and mathematical calculations. At the bottom, he’d always write ‘= 666!!’. I suppose he might have been published in the Daily Express, too.
So where have they gone, these lunatics, if they don’t send emails and don’t write letters either? Well, it’s obvious. They’re in the comments. And nobody even notices, because down there, madness is par for the course.
I don’t mean to be abusive here. I’m certainly not suggesting that everybody who comments on an article, ever, is sitting at home in their pants, tinfoil on head, basically being batshit doolally. I’m just saying it worries me. Pretty much any journalist I know would say the same. I know of one who describes the comments below her articles as ‘the bottom half of the internet’, which pretty much captures the sort of distaste we’re talking about here.
A lot of this is pure preciousness. I know it looks like we just knock this stuff out, still half-cut from the night before, but actually there’s a fair amount of effort involved. The last thing any hack wants is some amateur next door lowering the tone. When Leonardo da Vinci painted the ‘Mona Lisa’, after all, he didn’t leave a blank bit at the bottom, on which any passing oddbod was welcome to scrawl ‘BUT WOT ABUOT IMIGRATON?’
The unease, though, goes deeper. Bluntly, we don’t recognise it down there. We’re professional observers, and the country we write about up top often bears little relationship to the one we read about down below. It frightens us.
‘Well,’ you might be thinking, ‘no wonder. That’s because you spend all of your time snorting cocaine off the breasts of the liberal media elite at the Groucho Club, and wouldn’t know real life if it mugged you.’ It’s an understandable gripe, and frankly quite a flattering one, but it’s also mistaken. Britain does, after all, have a democratically elected, centre-left government. This may be about to change, but only in that it would be replaced by a centre-right one. Only, you never see the centre in the comments. Nobody ever logs on just to say ‘basically, everything is fine’.
Comments Britain tends towards the hard right, but does the hard left, too. Comments Britain is uniformly Eurosceptic, even on the Guardian. (Maybe a slim British majority now is, but everyone?) Comments Britain is overwhelmingly sceptical about climate change, but recent polls suggest that, while scepticism is surely on the rise, 75 per cent remain with the boffins. Most of all, Comments Britain is nasty. There’s fury out there, and bile and hate. Out there in the actual world, people just don’t seem to be that nasty. People actually seem pretty nice.
The only conclusion I can come to is that people are not more honest online, but less so. They set up a pretend facsimile of themselves, and then they pretend to live it. For a timely example, consider the case of David Wright, the Labour MP for Telford. On his Twitter feed this week, he appeared to refer to Tories as ‘scum-sucking pigs’.
Odd behaviour. He wouldn’t have said it on the radio. Asked for a written quote, by a newspaper, he’d probably have been a model of decorum and restraint. And yet there it is, apparently tapped out by his own hand, and with his name on it. He’s since claimed that his account was hacked, but come off it, nobody ever believes a tired old excuse like that.
About a year ago, there was a story doing the rounds about a very strange-looking couple from Cornwall. Remember that? The enormous bald husband had had an affair, and the enormous wife had kicked him out. Only, he hadn’t really had an affair. He’d had a virtual affair, on the computer game Second Life. A computerised, better-looking version of him had done it with a computerised better-looking, pretend American prostitute.
It caused quite a stir for a while, and then it just faded away. Nobody could work out whether this really did qualify as an affair or not, and so in the end everybody just gave up thinking about it. We, as a species, do not have this sorted. In essence, David Wright is just like that huge, bald, potentially philandering man. He must know what he did was wrong, but he probably doesn’t see it as having said the same thing directly into the face of, say, Eric Pickles.
The internet remains a half-world. We aren’t quite sure of the rules, but we know they aren’t the same as everywhere else. We commit thoughts we hold for half a second to a medium that will last forever. Regardless of how it should be, the web is not the world.
So when people tell me of a new, grass-roots momentum in politics, and then tell me that this momentum is web-based, I start to feel both queasy and doubtful. ConservativeHome, LabourHome, all the rest — I often suspect the views expressed in the comments on such sites are actually representative of nobody at all, up to and including the people who are online expressing them. I wonder if they are like the comments everywhere else, or the letters page of the Daily Express, or David Wright. Full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 20, 2010