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16th September 2013

Why ‘trolls’ are endangering public debate

Alice Rigby looks at the threat of violence in public debate, and how it got there…

In the arena of social debate this has been the summer of discontent. Over the last year women’s issues have been headline news, with battles over the acceptability of page three, everyday sexism and pornography representing just some of the discussions taking place across all media. However, with these debates, aggressive behaviour from both sides has become a worrying upward trend.
Most notably, online “trolls” have targeted the individuals involved in these debates on twitter and other social media networks, using intimidation to silence them. With behaviour that used to be solely targeted at celebrities in the public eye now directed towards civilian campaigners, there is a potential for the debate over trolling to eclipse the very issues under discussion.

Last week, this issue came to Manchester, with Julie Bindel, the controversial guardian writer, pulling out of a debate over the porn industry due to rape and death threats. Has threatening behaviour now become a hindrance to public debate?

We have seen major women’s issues dragged to the fore by everyday women and grassroots campaigns, this year. From Lucy Anne-Holmes campaigning against Page Three to Caroline Criado-Perez fighting to replace the only woman on a banknote with another woman, the feminism debate has been given somewhat of a new lease of life. Yet all of these women have something else in common – they have all been subjected to violent and often explicit threats, of rape and death, utilising information such as their addresses and their relationships. These threats have increasingly escalated to their most criminal form. Despite this, many have dismissed these threats because they are online. In our culture, such threats are accepted as par of the course in online debate. Yet the subjects themselves feel genuinely threatened. At some stage, violence has become an expected element of debate.

Take for example the ever-raging debate over atheism. Ricky Gervais, Christian Jessen and Stephen Fry have all been threatened in such debates and yet all have laughed it off. Much of their ability to do so stems from their status as famous individuals. The public profile that makes their views so prominent also significantly protects them from a genuine threat of violence. In the case of the civilian social campaigners this protection is not afforded. Their addresses are readily available online and their individual histories can be tracked. The normalisation of threats of violence, so unusual and unaccepted when voiced in the physical world, has only served to do these campaigners a disservice.

However, there is an aspect of the social debate where such campaigners, or their supporters, have been at fault themselves. The phrase ‘bigot’ is thrown around abundantly, often by those on the liberal side of the agenda. Although this phrase in itself isn’t violent, it is often used to accompany violent language. More to the point, it degrades the debate at hand by casually dismissing a particular point of view. It presents a particular opinion as not worthy of patience, consideration or understanding and so easily frustrates those who hold these opinions, opinions that they feel are genuine and worthy of discussion.

If one side, no matter how ‘right’ they seem to be, fails to even attempt to understand another perspective the opposing side cannot be expected to do so regardless. As such, the use of ‘bigot’ to comprehensively dismiss any opposition to one’s own views, as frustrating as that opposition may be, only serves to inflame and damage a debate. This has arguably encouraged the use of reactionary and violent tactics by those who feel that their opinion has been ignored when they have used ‘reasonable’ means.

It has become apparent that the rules surrounding public debate need to be significantly rethought to encourage the continued, public discussion of key social issues.

While virtual threats are still considered a non-issue many will be discouraged from involving themselves in these divisive discussions. And, while the rapidity of online response continues to be used as a means to render an opinion invalid, the holders of those opinions will continue to use increasingly reactionary tactics to establish their point of view.

Much debate needs to be rebalanced and much of the online world needs to be considered as a reflection of the physical one. Until then, intellectual debate will continue to be undermined by base aggression – from both sides of the fence.

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