What kind of person targets the distraught family of a seriously ill child and tells them that they are selfish, greedy and interested only in getting attention for themselves? How twisted, cruel and utterly devoid of the merest scrap of ordinary human compassion do you need to be, to heap this invective on a couple already facing one of the most nightmarish scenarios a parent could ever encounter?
Many people were saddened to hear that little Oscar Knox is once again fighting an aggressive form of cancer, just months after being declared free of the disease. It is a devastating blow for his parents, Leona and Stephen, who have campaigned long and hard to raise desperately-needed funds for the four-year-old's care, gathering support from local celebrities and sports stars along the way, like Olympic boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan.
By their own account, the Knox family have been inundated with renewed messages of heartfelt sympathy and encouragement, as their young son endures a fresh round of treatment.
But as the good wishes continued to flow in, the anonymous vipers were already at work online, hissing their messages of hatred. Oscar is "not the only child in NI with cancer", they said. They also insinuated that his family did not spend enough time focusing on Oscar, took advantage of people's good nature, and used their son's illness to seek attention.
Remarkable though it might seem, it appears as though the individuals who posted these comments are actually envious of the Knox family. Jealous of an exhausted, traumatised and emotionally-drained couple who now have to face up to the fact that their son is once again fighting for his life. Yes, I know, sick, isn't it? But if there's one thing we know about the faceless people who whisper such snide suggestions, it's that they are not right in their own heads.
The Knoxes themselves had only a short, dignified statement to make in response. Leona admitted to feeling "briefly sad" while her husband Stephen felt "briefly angry". You'll notice the repetition of that word 'briefly'. I imagine that the couple, who have been through so much already, thought they were through the worst, and now have to endure the horror all over again, don't have the time or energy to agonise about such vicious nonsense.
They have far greater pain and fear to face. As Leona herself said, "nothing can hurt us more than the words 'new disease'". And she made a simple yet compelling defence of the family's high-profile campaign. "We are well aware that he is 'not the only child in NI with cancer'," she said. "We have become close friends with many of those other families who quietly deal with this heartache every minute of every day. It is not our place to tell their stories, we tell Oscar's story, and are as proud of him and everything he has achieved as any parent could be."
At least when public figures say something odious or ugly, they can be held to account. For example, when the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle made a distasteful 'joke' about Katie Price's disabled son Harvey, there was a justifiable outcry. No such comeback for the
twisted creeps and embittered crones who lurk in the nether reaches of the internet, concocting and spewing out their bile. There is nothing to stop them, they act with virtual impunity. In a handful of cases the police are called in, but it's like trying to stem a tidal wave. There is little or no comeback for the perpetrator, yet the potential consequences for their victims are enormous.
(By the way, I refuse to call them trolls. It's too soft, and it's just another way of letting them off the hook. Trolls are mythical creatures, fictional fairytale monsters, and are thus harmless, unlike their real-life namesakes. It's a bit like calling an armed bank robbery a 'heist': it comes nowhere close to describing the terror of the situation.)
The internet offers these pathologically angry people the perfect conduit to visit their rage and cruelty – whether through explicit rape threats, bomb threats, or sickening jeers about personal appearance – on a wide variety of targets. Those who are perceived as weak or vulnerable are particularly at risk, and the results can be horrific: lives lived in fear, misery, and self-loathing, and some victims inevitably conclude that suicide is the only way out.
In the case of the self-appointed critics of the Knox family, they have committed no criminal offence. But they should know that they are guilty, morally guilty, of a grotesque absence of compassion that appears to be almost inhuman.
And that's where we reach the heart of this rather sordid story. Nasty, hostile people with nasty, hostile agendas have always existed, but the impersonal culture of the internet – where flesh-and-blood people are reduced to two-dimensional avatars, as unreal as a character in a computer game – has amplified their reach. And interacting online has a massively desensitising effect. For some, it's easy to forget that you're communicating with another human being, even easier to treat that human being as a repository for your own hang-ups and hatreds.
Perhaps the underlying problem is not the perceived inhumanity of the haters, but their all-too-real humanity. Because this is how people behave when they allow the darkness of the internet to divest them of all compassion and connection. It's the ancient law of the feral mob – sniff out the weakest, then take aim with the nearest stone – now written in 140 characters. And we call ourselves civilized?