Julie Burchill

The joy of online hatred

If you're tough enough, there's nothing more bracing than an online bitch-fight

The joy of online hatred
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[/audioplayer]On Saturday morning, when the body of the beautiful Antipodean model and television personality Charlotte Dawson was being taken from her home in Sydney, I was back in Blighty rolling up my sleeves and getting stuck in for yet another happy hour in the gladiatorial arena that is the Spectator online comments section. Wherein, amongst other things, an angry trans-person had threatened me with the Police, for committing Hate Crimes (note the use of Krazy Kapitals) and a Beating from her Hells Angel Husband.

These two things might seem completely random were it not for the fact that in 2012 Charlotte Dawson was admitted to hospital after a massive twit-off in which she was targeted by an organised online campaign of harassment at least in part due to her involvement with an anti-cyber-bullying crusade. ‘It kept going and going and going and going and going,’ she said of the anonymous hordes who told her to kill herself.

Some people saw a Hint of Hypocrisy (smells like an interesting fabric conditioner) in this, Dawson being notorious down under for her rather catty attitude as an Australia’s Next Top Model judge. She had also been bitchy about the Oz equivalent of Wags as part of her job as a TV fashion reporter and last month encouraged the singer Lorde to leave her native New Zealand: ‘Unless you’re very mediocre you need to get out of there ... you just have to if you want to keep succeeding, otherwise it’ll just crush your spirit.’

But it was Dawson herself whose spirit ended up being crushed, and her friends and colleagues maintain that online trolling played some part in this. Sad though her death was, one would have to have a heart of stone not to raise a smile at the sight of Russell Crowe breaking down in tears at the news, before tweeting ‘Charley ... just don’t understand. There’s not enough kind souls as it is. Rest in peace.’

Meanwhile, over at the Spectator website, myself and a band of recently assembled cyber-chums — including the magnificently named Flaming Fairy — were going at it hammer, tongs and snapping thongs with a person calling themselves both Michelle-Louise and The Dame. (I suppose we all had imaginary friends as tots, and some people liked the experience so much that they have seen fit to continue it well into middle age.)

Michelle the Dame, it soon transpired, was one angry trans-sister, who had taken exception to my Spectator piece on intersectionality and after a few cries of ‘Bigot!’ and ‘Fatty!’ the threats began in earnest. After she had warned me half a dozen times that a good old Altamont-style seeing-to was coming my way from her better half — ‘Did I MENTION that my husband is a Hells Angel and nightclub bouncer?’ — I tired of her trollery and bit back: ‘Did I mention that MY husband is a GRAMMARIAN — the MOST RIGOROUS grammarian in both East and West Sussex? I warn you that if HE decides to punctuate you, you’ll STAY punctuated!’

That did it; M the D went ballistic, addressing myself and my gay playmates thus: ‘You are the biggest load of scumbags and white trash there has ever been. Hitler had the right idea — he would have done away with the likes of you. I hate radical feminists and that hate has been even more strengthened by being on here with idiots and morons like you and your acolytes.’

Charlotte Dawson Photo: Getty
I must say that I was fair hugging myself with glee by now, for I am not, to put it mildly, a blushing violet of any shade. I am not even a Charlotte Dawson, whose snarky carapace hides a soft exterior. I am tough as old boots. I honestly find it hard to care what my loved ones think of me; the idea that I would care what one-handed, half-witted strangers think of me is even more of a stretch. And though it’s awful when it happens to young girls, whose hormones are all over the show, I can’t help thinking that grown women shouldn’t react with such hoop-skirted uproar when aforementioned inadequates demonstrate their inferiority by calling them names and threatening them with a fate worse than death. From where I’m sitting, the only fate worse than death these poor seat-sniffers could inflict would be extreme boredom. And really bad punctuation.

After a few hours of being told that the Police were about to Knock on my Door (Krazy Kapitals are Katching) and drag Me away for Hate Crimes Galore, I lost patience and phoned the rozzers myself, always keen to meet Trouble halfway. After I’d given them my name and contact details, the charming lady asked me for a brief summary of the online bitch-fight. When I came to the bit about the Hells Angels and Hitler Being Right, there was a sharp intake of breath from Hate Crimes.

‘Let me stop you there, Julie, because this is starting to sound like you should be the one filing a complaint.’ ‘I won’t, thank you, as I’m not a cry-baby. But can I file one if this person really has done and I get arrested?’ ‘Of course you can! It’s never too late to report a hate crime.’

I went back to the fray refreshed and soon had Michelle the Dame deleting posts left, right and centre: Hitler and the Hells Angels would have to try another day.

As poor Charlotte Dawson’s case proves, these creatures can occasionally corner and destroy. But if you feel loved in your personal life, and sure of your beliefs in your public life — which I do, in spades — it’s hard to be hurt by the abuse of strangers. On the contrary, I find it rather bracing, like a swim in an icy pool on a sleepy morning. Like brass-rubbing and anal sex, online scrapping is not for everyone. But for a few of us articulate, secure types, it has opened up a whole new wonderland of verbalicious viciousness.