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Shine A Light On The Trolls
You’re an ugly, impotent idiot. If someone shouted that at you in the street, perhaps adding a few expletives, you would probably think he or she was mentally ill and, if they persisted, you might call the authorities. So why do otherwise civilised people thinks it’s all right to talk like that in the digital world of Twitter, Facebook and the like?
This week a Brighton woman launched a legal action to get Facebook to reveal the identities of people who falsely portrayed her as a paedophile. In the last few months, there have been vile online attacks by so-called Trolls on a member of the Army Wives singing group, rape threats sent to the MP Louise Mensch and racist comments about Fabrice Muamba. There have been numerous cases of young people being driven to suicide by online bullying and any number of high profile figures reporting that abuse goes with the territory of an online presence.
It would be lovely to think that playground bullies grow up but some continue when they are adults, for example in the workplace. All bullies carry on as long as they can get away with it- picking on the weak and quickly retreating when challenged. Unfortunately the internet enables a certain kind of person to ‘get away with it’ by hiding behind anonymity.
Part of the problem is that many websites actively encourage ‘user names’ rather than real names. This is for the very good reason that lots of us have the same name. I’ve talked before about how many Paul Lewises there are in Hampshire alone so I know it must puzzle some people when Paul Lewis speaks against the market on Winchester High Street which is managed by Paul Lewis.
That’s OK, even though I do wonder why people who criticise me aren’t prepared to look me in the face, as it were, by giving something like their real name. The problem with made-up names comes when people use them to disguise who they really are so that they can commit mischief. The worst example is an adult who grooms children by pretending to be a child himself. Less grave but still unacceptable is the case of businesspeople who write favourable comments about their own products or criticise a rival, while pretending to be consumers.
Most of the time the use of an internet alias is harmless. I can see that it could be fun to pretend to be a different person- writers and actors do it all the time. Even so, I believe it should be possible for all of us to find out the real identity of anyone who posts comments. If they have something to hide, it better be something important, like they’re in a witness protection programme. In special cases, responsible hosts of websites could approve the anonymity but still have a record available to the police of a verified name and address. Apparently Facebook do insist on real names ands will remove or block abusive comments, so why not make identities available at a click of a button?
The internet has given everyone the opportunity to write for the public, whether reviewing a film, describing their shopping experience or commenting on an article. It has shown that there are many people as intelligent, articulate and interesting as paid journalists. Sadly there are also many who were short changed when intelligence, wit or command of English were handed out, so their comments come out as simply sarcastic (not my readers, of course).
Add to this, there is an astonishing lack of self awareness and social skills around. For every Ricky Gervais who can make bad taste seem amusing, there appear to be thousands of people who think bad taste is funny in itself. Still, we can’t ban stupidity or crassness. The problem comes when they deliberately seek to hurt. Once you have a false name and you’re not face to face, it’s much easier to be horrible.
So far, I have been fortunate not to have experienced more than mild sarcasm in the comments on this blog, while others have offered thoughtful or constructive responses. Everyone is, as they say, entitled to their opinion, but it counts for a lot more if they’ve taken the trouble to base it on facts. I find it amusing to be criticised for mentioning my business in my blog, even though the Daily Echo only publish it because I run a small business. There is also an assumption that I am remunerated for writing this column. As if someone would pay for this! Then again, I learned a long time ago, when trying to sell things, that you should never overestimate people’s knowledge, any more than you should underestimate their intelligence.
Anyone who steps into public life, whether an entertainer, a politician, a journalist or a blogger on the Echo website, must accept and try to ignore any uninformed or witless comments. Free speech is fundamental to our way of life. Criticism is a healthy way of ensuring we all keep up and raise our standards. I simply believe that the cowardly minority of bullies, bigots and other uncivilised people who hide behind anonymity of the internet should be made to come out of their dark, dank holes and exposed to the light of public opinion.
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I co-own Your Life Your Style the home and gifts shop in the Brooks Centre Winchester which also sells online at yourlifeyourstyle.co.uk. I love running a small business. The headlines go to the companies turning over billions of pounds but nearly half the UK economy is powered by small to medium size businesses. Small businesses lead change and offer a huge range of challenges. Having spent my early working life in retailing, I moved into arts marketing including many years as the Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. I still provide marketing and PR support to small businesses. Paul Lewis