Within seconds of the announcement of Charlotte Dawson’s death, her body barely cold, lowlifes on the internet were swarming together to make dumb comments about her. No, I’m not referring to trolls. I’m referring to trollhunters, the self-appointed, feministic policers of civility on the internet, who use their high stations in the media and cultural industries to demand government clampdowns on the foul-mouthed plebs of the web. No sooner had it been revealed that Ms Dawson had died, most likely by her own hand, than these Torquemadas of the Twittersphere were insisting she was ‘killed by trolls’ and were ghoulishly marshalling her corpse to their campaign for tougher laws against offensive internet chatter.
Brutally reducing Ms Dawson’s tragic demise to a simple case of death-by-trolling (Dawson had been targeted by trolls on Twitter for a few years), the trollhunters used her death to try to inject some life into their censorious moral crusade. The Daily Mail said Dawson had been ‘trolled to death’. The Sydney Morning Herald lambasted Twitter for ‘failing to act against trolls’ despite ‘the serious damage [they are] causing to mental health’. The online newspaper Eastern Tribune declared Dawson had been ‘murdered by Twitter trolls’.
This hunt for the web-users who might be branded with blame for Dawson’s death is grotesque for two reasons. First, because it reduces Dawson from a human being to a symbol, hoovering all the emotional complexities from her life, like the fact she had suffered from depression for years and had profound financial problems, in favour of holding her up as simple victim of the raucous internet. And second, because of what it says about words — namely, that they can kill, that they’re so toxic that society must monitor them more closely. Like every other censor in history, the modern trollhunter depicts speech as an act of violence in itself — and once we accept the Orwellian idea that speech is violence, there’s potentially no end to the laws that might be introduced to police and punish it.
The Dawson affair confirms that the greatest menace to the internet is not trolls but trollhunters. Yes, trolls are a pain. I have lots. One recently hand-delivered to my office a bag of excrement (his own, I assume). But these are isolated, pathetic people, whose frustrated bashing-out of 140 characters of invective against people they’ve never met speaks precisely to their powerlessness. The trollhunters, by contrast, have considerable power. Inhabiting privileged positions in the media, fawned over by the political class and police, these moral cleansers of the Twittersphere and beyond can — and very often do — reshape online social life around their own fears and prejudices.
The narrative of the great troll panic is that media women are ‘under siege’ and are being silenced by an online army of brutal blokes empowered by centuries of misogyny. This is an utter inversion of reality. There’s no army of trolls. And if anyone is being silenced, it’s the trolls themselves, whose arrest and imprisonment have been demanded and sometimes won by the well-connected women of the vast trollhunting industry.
Consider the case of Caroline Criado-Perez, a British feminist who claimed she was being hounded by gangs of misogynistic trolls. How many people had charges brought against them for trolling her? Two! One was described as a ‘jobless recluse’ and the other, a 23-year-old woman, is said to have drink problems. Yet both found themselves splashed on the pages of the British tabloids, mocked across the Twittersphere, and finally detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Who’s the real mob here? Two saddos who tweeted vulgar things while pissed? Or the army of feminists, hacks and coppers who made those saddos into symbols of moral depravity and deprived them of their liberty?
Australian feminists also claim to be the put-upon targets of an awesomely powerful explosion of online hatred. Yet they have the entire media on their side (remember the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Stop the trolls’ campaign?), not to mention politicians such as Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, the police and lawmakers, who are forever discussing how to force Twitter and Facebook to take firmer action against their more foul-speaking residents. The crusade against trolls is power masquerading as powerlessness.
‘But’, the trollhunters will say, ‘we only target bullying, not opinions, so this isn’t a free speech issue.’ This is their most disingenuous cry, for in truth they demonise not only speech that is already illegal — such as threatening to kill someone — but also speech that is simply critical of someone’s appearance or ideas. They conflate illegal speech with nonconformist speech, treating all as ‘trolling’. So Australia’s warriors against trolls demand tough action against speech that is ‘threatening, offensive or hurtful’, which covers just about everything, from threats of violence to fruitily expressed opinions about politicians. The Guardian recently reported that British feminists view as ‘trolling’ everything from a bloke sending ‘threats of rape’ to someone being ‘strongly and personally antagonistic towards feminism’. Excuse me? We can all agree that threatening rape is foul; but criticising feminism, a political ideology, is entirely legitimate. Through conflating violence and opinion, trollhunters bring political expression under the purview of the police.
This feministic fury towards the mob is reminiscent of earlier outbursts of elite disdain for the masses. When the printing press was first developed, pointy-hatted churchmen panicked that the plebs would get ideas above their station once they had access to books. When the mass media first appeared in the early 20th century, elitists tore their hair out over the thought of the little people having access to political news. ‘The rabble vomit their bile and call it a newspaper’, said Nietzsche. And now that everyday folk have the tools to create their own media, to express themselves publicly, the people who see it as their right alone to do such things — the opinion-forming set — are scared, and fuming. Catherine Deveny, a feminist comedian soon launching a one-woman show in Melbourne called The Trollhunter, was recently asked what these ‘trolls’ did before the internet. ‘They went to the pub together and talked about how all women are bitches,’ she said. That, right there, is the beating heart of the sneery trollhunting frenzy — a desire to keep the lower orders in the pubs, where they belong, far from public media platforms which apparently only the well-educated and right-on should be allowed to ascend.