Trolling and equality in the public sphere

Dealing with online abuse against women will require major changes to the structure of the media.

Many regard trolls as an annoyance to be ignored, but there are growing calls for action when their abuse crosses over into threats [AP]

Over the summer, campaigners in Britain successfully sought to ensure that notes issued by the Bank of England continued to have at least one woman who wasn’t Queen Elizabeth depicted on them. Led by Caroline Criado-Perez, the campaign was successful, and on July 24 the new governor of the Bank, Mark Carney, confirmed that the novelist Jane Austen would be featured on the new ten-pound note.

Like Adam Smith, Austen provides contemporary Britain with some of its most important legitimating narratives. She combines property fetishism, the obsessive taxonomy of rank, and silence about crimes off-stage and offshore to create an art that is as appropriate to our age as to hers. The exquisite quality of social surveillance in Austen makes a perfect match with Adam Smith’s just-so stories about the division of labour.

The spectacle of women acting effectively to secure their objectives in the public realm was too much for many men, and those associated with the campaign were subjected to torrential abuse. At one point, Criado-Perez was receiving a violent threat a minute on Twitter, many of them of rape and murder. This outburst of misogynist hatred has highlighted what women have long known: Public speech and action carries costs for women that don’t normally apply to men.

The default for public status is a white, straight, university-educated, middle-class male. Anyone who doesn’t meet all these criteria can very easily become a magnet for intense fury. Women are particular targets: A woman with the audacity to speak publicly will face much more in the way of abuse and hostility, simply because she is a woman. And this isn’t only about lonely and disappointed misogynists. The denigration of women is still pervasive in society. In competitive environments, misogyny often confers advantage. It is still a part of how business is done, and how the proceeds are divided. The internet only makes woman-hatred more visible.

Twitter hands down new rules against online abuse

‘Don’t feed the trolls’

Understanding what is going on is sometimes made more difficult by the concept of “trolling” – insincere speech intended to derail conversation. Trolling takes many forms and includes sexist and racist abuse. But it also takes the form of calculated witlessness, artful irrelevance and a talent for misdirection that can approach a kind of infuriating sublime. Often the best way to deal with trolling in this sense is to ignore it – “don’t feed the trolls”, as the saying goes. But this doesn’t seem remotely like an adequate response to the kind of abuse that Criado-Perez received.

It’s important to note that at least some abusive speech online is deliberately orchestrated in order to promote another, unstated agenda. We know that the US-UK state has extensive real-time knowledge of what happens on social media. Given the extensive use of agents provocateurs in the real world, it is unduly trusting to think that the powerful wouldn’t use them online, too. If I wanted to frustrate the emancipatory potential of digital media, I would do what I could to encourage and promote racism, misogyny and other kinds of prejudice. How much of the abusive speech is created by public relations ghouls and spooks from the state can only be a matter of conjecture. They’re definitely listening. It seems unduly naive to think that they aren’t also talking.

And we also need to bear in mind the extent to which both insincere speech of various kinds and outright abuse are not limited to the internet. The author and filmmaker Joel Bakan once told me how he had been grilled mercilessly during a television interview. As far as he could tell, his interviewer thought his film, The Corporation, was wholly without merit, a travesty of poor argument and slanted statistics. It was only when the show cut to a commercial break that his on-air inquisitor told him how much she had enjoyed the film, and how right he was to highlight the psychopathic nature of the corporate form, something she herself had experienced.

Equality and the public sphere

Much of what we see on television has this unreal quality. People inhabit roles for the sake of argument, even when a sincere exploration of common ground would probably be far more interesting for viewers. Similarly, the people who write much of the content of the right-wing press don’t believe a word of their own output. The mainstream media themselves are engaged in trolling on the grand scale. For a long time they did so with something like impunity. Anyone who wanted to be asked back would think twice before pointing out the hypocrisy.

What is an internet troll?

Nevertheless, the public sphere is much more hostile to some than others. If we are serious about liberating ourselves, we cannot tolerate those who seek to intimidate. If you see online abuse, recognise it for what it is, an attempt to drive some categories of speaker from the public sphere. If they succeed, they narrow the range of expressible opinion, and so reduce your own freedom. Each of us has to decide what we can do as individuals to deal with this threat to our liberty.

But an adequate response requires more than this. We also need to work together to create media forms in which we aren’t obliged to take on the burden of representing a group or body of opinion. At the moment, those who manage public speech insist on giving an argument a “public face”. While it is necessary to ensure that the professionals of speech are more representative of the general population, it is not sufficient. A class of commentators will never be able to articulate adequately the interests of those they represent.

Something else is needed. We also need the power to engage in public speech without necessarily becoming a talking head. In the age of Austen and Smith, children were seen and not heard. A citizen is someone who is heard even when they choose not to be seen. This is, after all, the privilege that the intelligence agencies claim for themselves.

We can imagine a system in which ideas are explored on their own terms, and don’t need to be associated with people who can then be demonised or abused. The power to initiate public speech, to engage in dialogue and debate on terms we choose, is central to the creation of a democratic culture. We don’t all have to become great orators. But we do need to be more familiar with the mechanics of publicity, something that the current regime of representation does nothing to demystify. This brings us back to the still waters of media reform.

In Matthew Boulton’s time, a few propertied men had the power that all the world wants. To an extent that should shock us more than it does, they keep it still. Until we reform the mechanisms of public speech, so that we can all speak in conditions of equality, the world made by Boulton and depicted by Austen will endure. Gentility and barbarism will exist as two sides of the same coin.

Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. 

Follow him on Twitter: @danhind