There has been a great deal written recently about internet trolls, and you may have read the headlines detailing the misogynistic treatment doled out this year to -- among others -- Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington and departing Tory MP Louise Mensch on Twitter. I won't waste space by repeating the things that were said, but they demonstrate the ugly depths some people will go to when they think they are hidden behind a username.
One of the questions that comes up when discussing the subject is how best to deal with people who misuse social networks -- which are, in my opinion, an incredible force for good -- to spread vile abuse. Those targeted would be perfectly within their rights to simply down tools and leave the network altogether -- after all, why should anyone put up with treatment like this when there's an easy escape at the touch of a button. It would, however, be a terrible shame if somebody like Adlington were to let the bullies drive her away from Twitter, an incredible tool that allows her to be close to her millions of fans. So what to do?Most take another option and treat trolls in the same way that I tell my son to treat playground bullies -- take the high road and ignore them. Idiots like that crave attention, and the best thing you can do is not give it to them. By and large this approach is the most manageable -- and often the most distinguished. However there is something incredibly unempowering about being forced to maintain a dignified silence on a social network.
Social networking is about communication, debate and interacting with others -- as soon as we start feeling like there are certain comments or commenters that we can't respond to we lose the very essence of why we use networks like Twitter in the first place.
This is why I've been heartened to see that both Mensch and Adlington have taken a more active stance in recent weeks, and done a great deal to shame their trolls publicly for what they are -- misogynistic, aggressive bullies. Mensch has added a string of the worst offenders to her Twitter favorites in order to highlight the issue while Adlington retweeted a despicable insult she had received to her 51,000 followers. In doing so she made national news -- which meant, of course, so did her tormenter. This sort of action is brave, it raises awareness and hopefully (although it's unlikely) it will make the next idiot think twice before doing the same thing.
My favorite response to trolls comes from comedy actress Isabel Fay, a member of Lady Geek's Remarkable Women program. 'Thank You Hater', a musical sketch responding to the abuse she was receiving on YouTube (sample lyric: 'You wished me cancer and misspelled "cancer".'), has received widespread acclaim, with Stephen Fry declaring it a 'masterpiece'. Within a few hours it had tens of thousands of hits and has racked up almost 700,000 views to date. Featuring cameos from other performers such as Noel Clarke, Richard Herring and Issy Suttie, it expertly and hilariously skewers the idiocy of unconstructive online hatred.
These responses are all very inspiring. There is certainly a dark side to social networking -- and, knowing people, there probably always will be -- but if people like Fay, Mensch and Adlington continue to expose the worst offenders and make them look ridiculous, it takes the power away from the bullies and show them up as the cowards they are. Once we've done that we can get back to using social networks for all the amazing, positive things they are designed for.