When Brenda Leyland was asked by a reporter why she was sending abusive tweets to the parents of missing child Madeleine McCann, she responded: "I'm entitled to do that."
Whether she knew it or not, Leyland, who was found dead in a hotel room from a reported suicide on October 4, revealed a lot in that one comment. Accused of being among Twitter "trolls" who have written thousands of fiercely negative tweets about the McCanns, Leyland found refuge in a claim to entitlement. Whether she was in fact "entitled" to anonymously spew bile about the controversial parents is moot. She never faced legal consequences in life, and no sense of entitlement survives death.
Leyland was correct, though. To be granted the title "troll" is to be gifted a certain entitlement. Trolls enjoy the privilege of the benefit of moral doubt. Even the word suggests an impish nuisance or troublemaker, a bully at worst. But a number of recent incidents have shown darker monsters can hide behind troll masks.
When Facebook began cracking down last month on reported violations of its "real" names policy (prompting appropriate furor and policy reform), dozens of drag queens' accounts were flagged and suspended. Facebook told the press that only accounts reported by members of the "Facebook community" were reviewed. I asked a Facebook representative in an email whether the company had "worked to ensure that these reports were not borne of bullying or harassment." I never received a response.
As the Daily Dot revealed this week, one "troll" was almost single-handedly responsible for ratting out the drag queens and LGBTQ individuals who were using their non-legal names on Facebook — and whose accounts the social media firm flagged, duly feeding the troll. Using the Twitter handle @RealNamePolice, the troll boasted of reporting "upwards of thousands of Facebook accounts." If there was any doubt about the homophobic and bigoted intent here, the troll expressed explicit desire to disrupt the online lives of "secular sodomites."
Too little too late, Facebook apologized for a failure to respect their users' chosen identities. The troll had worked though, primarily because the reports were not given ample scrutiny as potential tools of abuse. We could call upon a Burkian platitude here, about how evil flourishes when good people do nothing. But I won't go so far as expecting social media moderators to be "good people." It is enough that they be observant and scrupulous when a pattern of bigotry appears.
We have no simple solution for vanquishing all forms of prejudice and fascism in real life or online. The first step, though, is to refuse to diminish offensive behaviors and abuses as mere play.
It is a lesson myself and a number of fellow writers and journalists recently learned (or should have learned) the hard way in the case of Andrew "Weev" Auerheimer. Weev was unjustly imprisoned under the overreaching Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for exploiting a hole in iPad and AT&T security, then released on a legal technicality after a year in prison. He recently revealed himself to be a neo-Nazi, delineating his hatred of black and Jewish people and exposing a swastika chest tattoo on a white supremacist website. I shouldn't need to say that he is indefensible — not because the CFAA charges were just, but because he is a neo-Nazi.
Before Weev was a known neo-Nazi, he was called a "troll," and his online homophobia, anti-Semitism, and abuse was dismissed as "antics." I called him "tongue in cheek," and commended his "defiance" during his sentencing. The story of Weev is a parable about the dangers of letting ambiguity fog judgment when signs point all too clearly to putrid views. Which is neither to foreclose internet mischief and disruption, nor to insist on total online transparency.
Ethical hackers like Jeremy Hammond, serving 10 years in federal prison for his involvement in the LulzSec Stratfor hack, make abundantly clear that online rupture, aimed at seats of corporate power, needn't be the purview of bigots and misogynists. Trolls exempt themselves from appropriate censure with a sea of red herring arguments. Leyland's comment that she was "entitled" aligns with a tendency, primarily exhibited by white male trolls, to assert that their online activity is righteous simply because it has been permitted and is speech (and thus should be free).
There's an invalid inference here, which equates calling out online abuse with rendering the internet censored, policed, and pallid. This is not to suggest that every social media platform should maintain a "no-troll" policy in order to prevent hate speech and abuse. But we should be more wary when sorting imps from trolls from monsters. In real life, we have no simple solution for vanquishing all forms of prejudice and fascism — it's an ongoing struggle. So too online. The first step, though, is to refuse to diminish offensive behaviors and abuses as mere play.
Actress Jennifer Lawrence spoke plainly in a new Vanity Fair interview against the leak of her private photographs online. "It's not a scandal, it's a sex crime," she said. "The law needs to be changed and we need to change." On the latter point at least, she is correct. Rather than wait for the criminal justice system or bottom-line-focused tech giants to do the work of stamping out online abuse, the ethical onus rests on individual online users to collectively refuse to countenance, engage, or be entertained by abusive discourse — and to call it when we see it. I shouldn't have waited for a man to display a swastika on his chest to recognize and decry his fascism.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
Image via Wikimedia