The Spectator: The Importance of Being Trolled

TwitterEver since a Twitter troll was elected 45th President of the United States, the Twitterati has agonised over who to blame. But since it was Twitter that gave American voters unfettered access to Donald Trump’s brain, they really ought to be blaming Twitter itself. It’s not possible to say anything balanced or nuanced in 140 characters — that’s a format for jokes, insults and outrage. If you want to seize the world’s attention today, you must troll or be trolled on Twitter.

And since this is the one skill at which Trump is utterly unrivalled, he’s now busy trolling both America and himself. When a man with barely any followers once tweeted him in the middle of the night to say: ‘I firmly believe that @realDonaldTrump is the most superior troll on the whole of Twitter’, Trump retweeted it to his millions of followers: ‘A great compliment!’

In 2017, our ability to write books, act in films or even govern appears to be measured in Twitter followers, not talent. So there will be no stopping Trump or his disciples here in the UK, Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan. Were it not for Twitter, Hopkins would be a failed Apprentice candidate, not a highly paid commentator for Mail Online. Morgan would be a disgraced former newspaper editor, not a television host engaging in Twitter spats with J.K. Rowling. Unless Twitter ends, there will be no end to them.

At its worst, trolling is utterly repugnant, a sickening spectacle, and no one gets anything out of it. This was the case last year when Leslie Jones, star of an all-female remake of Ghostbusters, was hounded off Twitter after the alt-right tweeted racist abuse at her. It was also the case in 2013, when a PR consultant named Justine Sacco was hounded off Twitter by anti-racists after she tweeted: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ But whereas the forces of good Twitter, quite rightly, felt bad for and fell in love with Leslie Jones, almost no one sympathised with Sacco; they thought she’d revealed herself to be a racist — and therefore a vicious troll.

No one ever points out that the difference between a troll and a troll victim is as complex as that between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Nor that being trolled can have unbelievably positive results for your career. The pop star James Blunt, for instance, has reinvigorated his fanbase as a result of retweeting all the abuse he gets on Twitter. He has been hailed (in a Buzzfeed article viewed almost a million times) as ‘the trolliest troll of all Twitter trolls’ and millennials love him for it.

Blunt must relish getting trolled — and so do many journalists, though they’d never admit it. I once sat in a restaurant with someone who’d written a perfectly innocuous article for Grazia magazine and became positively giddy when her bleeping BlackBerry showed she was being trolled as ‘a feminazi’ by hordes of maladjusted losers on Twitter.

As Jamie Bartlett explains, ‘Being trolled by strangers on the net gives you the chance to show how hard things are for you, how right you were, and how noble and magnanimous you are in sharing your suffering with the world.’ In his book The Dark Net, he notes, ‘It is very rarely mentioned that the victims of trolls are far more often privileged, wealthy, happy, and successful than their perceived oppressors, who are often frustrated, jealous, and lonely.’

Bartlett’s theory is neatly encapsulated by the example of Owen Jones, who announced this month that he was ‘taking a break’ from Twitter because he couldn’t stand the abuse he gets. Owen is the author of two best-selling books, Chavs and The Establishment, and has amassed half a million followers. But he didn’t just close his account and shut up shop. He posted a sanctimonious, self-pitying 1,000-word status update on Facebook that attracted 10,000 ‘likes’, 2,400 comments and 1,000 shares. And three days later he was back tweeting out articles and videos. He got a lot of attention, bolstered his media profile and further maximised his earning potential. Meanwhile, all those who ‘trolled’ him remain as poor and ignored as they ever were — and vilified to boot.

The term ‘troll’ is not borrowed from fairytales — it refers to a method of fishing. It is, in the words of internet expert Derek Powazek, ‘a behaviour online where someone would leave a lot of lures to snare people, to entice them to get angry’. If you are not famous, you might feel that you’ve been trolled for years before Twitter was even invented by highly paid opinion-formers and pundits whose views you don’t agree with but have had to listen to on programmes such as Question Time.

Before Twitter, you’d shout impotently at them on the television when they said something you didn’t like. Now, you can tweet your rage straight at them online and — if they read all their tweets — they’ll hear you. But one must never, but ever, make such excuses for a troll. So one must not point out, for example, that Owen Jones has made a lot of money claiming to be the ‘voice’ of the ‘disenfranchised’ and now doesn’t like it when the ‘disenfranchised’ find they have their own voice, thank you very much — and use it to swear at him.

The same goes for fashionable Twitter feminists who have won fame claiming to speak for anyone who has a vagina. I’ve lost count of the number of women who tell me (privately and in the strictest confidence) that they’re sick to the back teeth of being told ‘How to be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran. One says she particularly hates Moran’s claim ‘I now live in Crouch End and my walls are painted in fucking Farrow and Ball and I have a cleaner but I will feel working-class to the day I die.’ She wants to respond, ‘Your cleaner has a name, she’s not a pot of paint and you’re not fucking working-class, are you?’ But if she tweeted that at Moran, this would constitute abuse, which is what ‘trolling’ has come to mean.

It is acceptable to be almost anything in the 21st century except a Twitter troll — for there is no person more despicable and deserving of punishment, especially when tweeting rape and death threats. I have been threatened with rape in real life, so I do know how unbelievably ill-making it is. But at the time I was alone with a drunk man in central Moscow who could have done it if he’d wanted to — it wasn’t a threat tweeted at me over the internet. And since he didn’t do it, he would not have deserved to go to jail for saying he would.

Yet when two Twitter trolls sent drunken threats of rape and worse via Twitter to Caroline Criado-Perez, who campaigned to put Jane Austen on the £10 note, and were sent to prison, Criado-Perez hailed it as a ‘brilliant day for women’. No one questioned how one privileged middle-class woman with 37,500 Twitter followers (currently represented by the Wylie Agency for a book about the ‘gender data gap’) sending two of life’s losers (one of whom was a 23-year-old woman) to jail for writing offensive words represented some sort of victory for women.

Feminism used to be a battle for equality. But now, if you were to listen to Criado-Perez and co., you’d think it was the fight for special victim status. Several prominent Labour MPs have launched a campaign to ‘Reclaim the Internet’. And yet since a Demos Twitter survey last year found that half of the misogynistic language came from women, this is really just a movement for women of high status seeking to silence women of lower status who want to send crude tweets at them.

We should be defending freedom of speech, saying: ‘I disapprove of what you tweet but I’ll defend to the death your right to tweet it.’ But this is not the ‘correct’ narrative. We are supposed to cheer en masse, instead, for Jack Monroe, who won £24,000 in libel damages from Katie Hopkins after malicious tweets upset her. Monroe didn’t prosecute on her own account, though — she did for the rest of us, saying, ‘I hope it teaches people to be a bit nicer to each other.’

What it’s taught me is the only way I’ll ever get anywhere in this life is if I get mercilessly trolled on Twitter. All I need to make it, à la Monroe, are enough hate-filled tweets to fill ‘six A4 ring-binders’. And as long as I’m not raped or killed in real life I’ll be laughing. Overnight I’ll go from a penniless hackette no one has rightly heard of to the reincarnation of Joan of Arc with 98,000 followers. If no one else has quite grasped the miraculous power of being trolled, Monroe seems to understand precisely what it’s done for her. Thanks to her Twitter fanbase she managed to crowdfund a cookbook in a single day. Now her Twitter bio reads not ‘cookbook author’ or ‘campaigner’, but ‘Ask not for whom the bell trolls; It trolls for me’.

As long as Twitter continues to dominate western society, and all our worth is summed up by the number of Twitter followers we have, the election of Donald Trump will simply be the ultimate symbol of a simple truth: that the only surefire way to triumph is to embrace the joy of trolling.

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Spectator Life: Paralysed In Paradise – Or How I didn’t See Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka oceanSpectator Life

Heartsick, mashed up, exhausted and alone, I was in no fit state for a romantic break to one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I sat in the departure lounge, business class, on my own, writing to him, expecting the plane to fall out of the sky, (he says: ‘name it and it won’t go down.’) Spilt tea over the floor, (not believing in this charm,) and waitresses dressed up as Emirates hostesses, with pretty box hats and veils, cordon off the spillage as if it’s an accident scene. On the plane, I switched to proper drinks, and drank so much I forgot to sleep (having too nice a time with the neverending champagne, forgetting we were in the air) only to land and stagger off to find another plane I’d call Zinedine Zidane. We touched down, as the sun rose, in the gleaming, empty airport of Mattala. (His advice proved sound – I pass it on.) And I watched the carousel go round and round, with no suitcase of mine, found myself unequal to describing exactly what it looked like for a beautiful lady in a sari (plastic, patterned, pink – the ugliest thing in Dubai) and then felt distinctly sick in the back seat of a car, racing down a six lane motorway the Chinese built for invisible cars, to the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. Hambantota.

The Shangri La hotel chain has built its reputation on knowing exactly how to look after their customers, and I am booked for the full VIP experience… So the welcome team squints at me for half a second before curing all my ills. They sit me down and hand me some juice. Then they promise to track down my things and have them with me by morning. Escort me to the gift shop and let me pick out a sexy swimsuit and summer dress – for free. Then they show me to a pristine suite with ocean view – where it is cold enough to sleep – to get on with my hangover. And when I wake up, half-new, I find that one member of staff has volunteered to act as my dashing Sengalese boyfriend for the duration. Ashan Ranansinghe (an auspicious name, for future planes) meets me for a slap up meal at the first of three excellent restaurants, and compliments me for heaping all the Sri Lankan curry on my plate. God it tastes good. He tells me my hair looks fine when it is blatantly standing on end in its all time worst tantrum. He asks me about books and says he reads Dostoevsky; suggests excursions we might enjoy for the next five days. Shows me all three swimming pools and leaves me to have a think about it.

And I decide, yes, as a woman apparently sane, I’d like to get up before sunrise, and have him drive me to see leopards (maybe leopards, or maybe not leopards, leopards are hard to predict) but certainly elephants and buffalo and deer. And yes I would like to walk to the temple at sunset and listen to the Buddhist prayers on the breeze. And yes I’d like to scale a rock and have my photo taken with the ocean. And yes I’d like to pose in a tuk tuk and go for a ride. But in the meantime, I sit on a sun lounger under an umbrella and burn my shoulders swimming. Later on, I beat the specialist French golf instructor in a rigged game of pitch and putt, who sped me around in a golf buggy to show off a course of exquisitely sculpted, very green grass where 10,000 coconut trees were felled and elephants no longer roam.

There is a war going on between Hambantota and its wildlife. When I got home, bucked up and started acting like a journalist rather than a girl who sat on a sun lounger and stared at her thighs every afternoon, I began to think south Sri Lanka odd. The empty airport – which cost $209 million – services one flight a day, with a footfall of 10 to 20 passengers. The empty motorway spreads out to a deep sea port and an international cricket stadium – also empty. All three, it turns out, are named after Sri Lanka’s former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who wanted to transform the place he was from into Sri Lanka’s second most prestigious city. The airport alone, the Sri Lankan press reports, is ‘a largely redundant vanity project’. Its terminals have been used for storing rice and its runways for parking unused jets. Last year, a plane engine was destroyed because a peacock flew into it, and the government deployed 350 troops armed with firecrackers to clear 150 deer and 50 wild buffalo which had been trapped after an electric fence was set up to prevent other wild animals running riot. Deprived of their jungle, elephants now trample over human settlements. But what is bad for locals is, undeniably, great for tourists. And if you’re searching for peace and quiet – go. Go now.

I should have left the hotel, walked down the winding drive, and found that out first hand. But I didn’t because living a life of luxury paralyses the imagination and the will. I needed Shangri La to chaperone me and they did a first class job. The best day was when Ashan and I got up before dawn to visit the nature reserve at Yala and see a wild elephant taking a bath. It was damned hot, in Yala (without the dry wind that blows so fast in Hambantota the resort feels cool when it ought to be sticky as hell) and the cavalcade of jeeps stopped to let tourists walk out on the sands. I sat in the meagre shade, eating special sandwiches, under a rusty sculpture which was put up to commemorate the height of the waves that swept Chinese tourists away in the tsunami that hit a decade ago. Ashan pointed to new huts that are being built, as the tourists venture back, and then to a rock which used to be full of monkeys. The monkeys walked in land before disaster hit and never returned. On the drive back I had my only sight of the real Sri Lanka – where streets are so bright and colourful, full of daredevils riding mopeds without helmets or shoes, where pots and pots of buffalo curd are sold outside homes. When we get back to the hotel, Ashan has booked me a spa treatment, in case the jeep shook me up. The masseuse wraps me up in a silk sheet and treats me like something precious.

Later, Ashan treats me to a five course meal designed for men flourishing engagement rings. It took him a long time to pop the question – ‘would you like to try some buffalo curd?’ and naturally, I said yes. (It tasted disgusting). For months afterwards, he dutifully Whats App’d me until he got tired – as all men do, in the end. And I hope that he has moved onto a real girl, who he’s not paid to proxy-date, in steamy Colombo.

On the last night, I went out by myself, preparing to be alone again. I walked along the beach, where the waves crash madly. (To be unloved is not so bad when one’s naked toes are so passionately pursued by the Indian ocean.)

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