Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Social media is a toxic mirror for our age... no wonder it's full of trolls and narcissists

Twitter is a cesspit, says Fionola Meredith - so why not wave the online abusers goodbye and walk away now?

Rachel Riley has signed up to a new scheme to beat the Twitter trolls
Rachel Riley has signed up to a new scheme to beat the Twitter trolls
Gary Lineker has signed up to a new scheme to beat the Twitter trolls
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Don't feed the trolls - that's always been the recommended way to deal with online abuse. Engaging with people who are determined to threaten, attack or slander you simply buys into their agenda, giving them the attention they crave, at the expense of your own peace of mind. It's like the old adage about wrestling with pigs - don't do it. You both get dirty and, besides, the pig likes it.

Now a group of celebrities and prominent politicians including Gary Lineker, Countdown presenter Rachel Riley and London mayor Sadiq Khan have signed up to a pledge that they will ignore the abuse they receive online.

It's part of a campaign by a NGO called the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), aimed at stamping out racist, sexist and xenophobic messaging. Instead of giving the slavering trolls the satisfaction - and increased publicity - of a reply, people should simply block them, mute them, or, in the worst instances, report them to the police.

Rachel Riley, who is currently pregnant, has been on the receiving end of horrendous anti-semitic abuse. She has had to block 1,500 trolls from her account, which has 650,000 followers - a decision which she says has improved her mental health.

Gary Lineker, who has 7.4 million Twitter followers, advises: "Don't rise to the bait, block the trolls and take some time out."

It makes sense, I suppose, not just on a personal level, but also on a much wider scale of social harm. Some trolls have become fairly sophisticated in their manipulation.

The CCDH campaign points to the way that extremist propagandists use coordinated trolling as a means of injecting hatred into political discourse. It cites a "trolling playbook", published by a white nationalist group, which recommends grabbing media attention by "trolling public figures and getting them to whine about it".

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According to CCDH analysis, an abusive tweet quoted by the black Labour MP David Lammy, which accused him of not being "indigenous English", increased his abuser's popularity by 14%.

Depriving noxious people of the attention they crave sounds like a smart plan. But what surprises me, as a long-time social media refusenik - yes, I'm still holding out on participating in Twitter or any of the other cosy clubs - is why people who are bothered by ritual abuse remain on these platforms.

Why don't they just leave?

No doubt these prominent celebrities would say that it's outrageous that they should be driven from Twitter by the grotesque behaviour of a relative minority of twisted individuals.

It would be giving into censorship, allowing themselves to be silenced. It would be letting the trolls, not the good guys, win. It would be like lying down in the muck and submitting to that horribly combative pig.

Fair enough. But I can't begin to imagine how soul-sapping it must be to spend a proportion of every day removing trolls and their hateful messages from your Twitter account.

You still have to read the damn things first, don't you? You're still going to be exposed to that vitriol and aggression, even briefly. Wouldn't it be an act of self-protection to simply say, no thanks, I don't need this in my life, I'm walking away?

Why not make that "time out", that Lineker recommends, a permanent one?

Think of how much time you would free up. Think of how much aggressive stupidity, directed at yourself or others, you wouldn't have to see. All that toxicity, erased in a flash, when you tap 'delete account'.

This is the main reason I'm not on Twitter. As a female columnist and broadcaster, living in a small, divided society, I know I'd be a magnet for abuse. And I have better things to do than decontaminate a social media account each day. That's a bit too much like cleaning the toilet.

The fact that these big Twitter stars don't leave the platform may be less a story of free-speech heroism and standing up against the evil armies of trolls, and more a fairytale of self-love.

Celebs, like many lesser-known but equally needy, narcissistic people, often wish to look into the magic mirror of social media and see an idealised version of themselves staring back at them.

They want to be surrounded by a crowd of applauding sycophants, providing them with the level of personal attention, admiration and reinforcement that their fragile, hungry egos so desperately crave.

The crucial difference between famous Twitter addicts and the trolls that plague them on social media is that the celebrities don't dish out vicious abuse.

But the craving for attention is the same.

Belfast Telegraph


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