Is the naming and shaming of Twitter trolls alright?

Ricky Gervais defends the right to be an idiot on TwitterSocial media shaming. We’ve all seen it. The crowd piles into an unsuspecting celebrity, or sometimes a mere mortal, telling them what they have done is wrong, why it’s wrong, and just how awful a person they are for saying it. There are, frankly, too many examples of such things to start naming them here, and many interesting people have given up online services as they simply can’t be bothered dealing with it anymore.

Interestingly, in an era in which technology is supposed to be breaking down norms, we see the crowds on social media becoming ever more (small c) conservative. Look at how Twitter users reacted to those who, mistakenly or otherwise, tweeted at 11 o’clock on Remembrance Sunday. The guardians of the Twitterati had declared that there was to be a two minute Twitter silence, and anyone who broke this nice but entirely unenforceable ideal was hounded appropriately at 11.02 and three seconds.

If you break the mould online, someones going to call you out for it. Then a lot more people are probably going to pile in, whether it’s blog comments, Facebook comments and pages, or tweets.

There is an interesting point, raised on Buzzfeed, that as more and more ‘real’ identities come to the fore online, people are being held more responsible for their comments: 

“There does seem to have been a shift in the last year or so in which not only are real people tied to the things that they say and do online, but they’re responsible for them.” 

The theory goes that using a real identity makes people behave better online, because the crowd can find out who they are. 

Matt Buchanan goes on to say that “the question, then, isn’t whether websites and the online public should be allowed to name and shame the most virulently racist and sexist amongst us – answer: a clear unambiguous yes – but how far they should go in exacting more rectitude.”

I abhor racism and sexism online and off, but that is a horrifying turn of phrase, and this lynch mob mentality makes me very nervous indeed. Indeed, Buchanan acknowledges that the type of naming and shaming conducted by the likes of Jezebel is “stunt vigilantism”.

The veil of anonymity is slipping a way from mainstream online life, and it makes exposing the more intolerant that have sadly always existed in our society easier. Whether we want blogs and Twitter to become the 21st century Mcarthyite moral arbiters, is for us, the users, to decide. Quickly.

But others have a different take. Look at  Ricky Gervais who has attacked the recent spate of persecutions and prosecutions against people posting offensive material on social network sites.

He insists that “it’s not against the law to be an idiot”. Gervais, who once called Twitter pointless before returning, says he’s not concerned with what he says on Twitter, but is concerned about the way people are being prosecuted.

“I’m going to say what I think. It’s a bit weird that we can be prosecuted for saying what we think. It is a worry. But you have to take every case on its own merits. Offence is relative. Offence isn’t about right or wrong, it’s about feelings. So I think it’s difficult to say someone is objectively wrong.

“I mean, they can still be an idiot and they can say something horrendous, but I think if you haven’t broken the law it’s a bit of a worry. I don’t think being an idiot is against the law. That’s what it comes down to. Some people believe in ghosts and God, which I find very strange, but I don’t think they should be arrested,” Gervais said as he promoted third series of the Sky One show ‘An Idiot Abroad’ that sees Karl Pilkington return.

  • Pete Stean

    Libel and contempt of court are actionable wherever they take place – pushing the send button in Twitter is, to all intents and purposes, publication. People just need to think before they tweet.