Venom and bile and all things vile, that’s what Little Trolls are made of. If only we were talking about those misunderstood monsters of fairy tales, the ones doomed to dwell beneath bridges because they no doubt endured abusive childhoods; alas, we are focused on the word’s contemporary meaning, and I say alas because the existence of these cyber psychopaths remains one of the greatest blights on a medium that has, for me, been a beneficial link-up with like-minds around the world.
The application of such an old word to such a modern phenomenon is one of the few occasions in which the changing meaning of a word actually works. Whoever selected it deserves a medal, because nothing else could have been more apt when it comes to those warped wanderers of the worldwide web during the twilight hours. The fairy tale trolls were physically repulsive, coated in warts and boasting numerous visual deformities; we weren’t informed of their opinions on topical subjects, so their ugliness was made evident via their appearance. Their equivalents in 2015 hide behind cartoon avatars, but their eagerness to express their opinions leaves us to form a mental image of the man or woman behind the mask that matches the troll portrait of old.
Although the word had yet to be appropriated anew, what we now regard as trolls were amongst us before the internet; back then, their ability to spew forth instant vitriol was limited by the need to depend upon the Royal Mail to deliver their poison pen letters. Precious time was also consumed by the popular method of cutting out letters from newspapers to compose their messages with, a tedious task that the autistic undercurrent tending to be present in the personalities of such characters probably rendered an enjoyable little duty, all the same. Whereas your average disgruntled social inadequate with a petty grievance would restrict their need to articulate outrage by penning missives to newspapers or ‘Points of View’, the pre-internet trolls had to maintain anonymity because their targets would generally be those that elicited either sympathy or admiration from people with a heart and in possession of common decency.
The recently bereaved, the terminally ill, the wrongly accused, publicised pools-winners, celebrities with an actual talent (don’t forget, I’m talking the twentieth century, not the twenty-first) – all were recipients of old-school hate mail, from the simple profanity-littered letter to the extremity of a live bullet, which pop star Gary Numan once received in the post. The decline in the popularity of the envelope as the vehicle for such a compassionate communiqué was engineered by the email, although it took the advent of mobile phone technology, firstly the text and then twitter, to usher in the age of the troll as we would recognise it.
Most trolls come to their specialist subject from a twisted moral perspective. A story breaks in the media that they somehow feel they are qualified to comment on, airing their groundless expertise and quickly gaining support from their fellow insomniacs isolated in other bedrooms across the country; before long, the back-slapping mutual appreciation society morphs into a chattering community of self-righteous zealots, utterly convinced their stance on the subject in question is beyond reproach. It’s not difficult to discern these are probably people nobody listened to or paid much attention to before the internet arrived; suddenly, their viewpoints have a platform they’d previously been denied and, even better, they have the kind of power to express them that only Fleet Street hacks had held in the Dark Ages.
Had the technology of today existed in 1980, Mark Chapman would probably have been a troll, bombarding John Lennon with abusive texts and tweets; he couldn’t, so he bought a gun instead, condemning himself to life behind bars. Today’s trolls don’t need to go to that extreme; the cleverest can skilfully evade prosecution and imprisonment by closing one account and immediately opening another, firing endless bullets into the backs of their targets under a variety of different nom-de-plumes and maintaining the secret identities that are necessary when unleashing their vicious vendettas onto social media. Were they directing their illiterate vomit at mass-murderers, unelected despots with the blood of thousands on their hands or even corrupt politicians, their methods still couldn’t be condoned, but the motivation behind their choice of target would be a little easier to understand. However, they tend not to take aim at such figures; instead, they select a victim who has usually already suffered some injustice or trauma and add to it.
This curious and inexplicable plan of attack not only implies an absence of empathy characteristic of those capable of cruelty towards their fellow-man, but also hints at a serious mental disorder. The journalist Julie Burchill has made a long and successful career out of being consciously contrary, of championing the discredited and gleefully taking pot shots at perceived wisdom, but at her best she has done so with a wit and mischievous intelligence sorely lacking in the trolls who dominate the medium of the moment, as her notorious and hilarious fax exchanges with American feminist Camille Paglia in the 90s underlined. The trolls who took it upon themselves to find Kate and Gerry McCann guilty of murdering their infant daughter, for example, are typical of the joyless, judgemental, obsessive, opportunistic, miserable, manic, negative, nasty and pusillanimous parasites who feed on the tragedy of people they’ve never met and don’t know.
An unsolved case such as that of Madeleine McCann is a gift to such speculative bullshit, as is the child abuse industry, especially where the alleged abuser is either dead or dying. This is the real Court of Public Opinion, where the actual laws of the land don’t apply and someone is declared guilty if enough trolls agree they are. And what makes the trolls even more convinced they’re on the right track is if someone outside their circles gives them the green light to launch a fresh assault, a General issuing orders to his foot-soldiers. This Commanding Officer knows he doesn’t have to dirty his hands, that his troops will do the donkey work for him, engaging in the kind of dustbin-rooting snooping that was once the preserve of the press. As soon as information has been gathered, it can be released in an instant; no need to purchase a stamp and wait a day or two for the postman to stroll up to the letterbox of the recipient; they can be hit with the information within minutes of it being unearthed.
It’s a tad too simplistic to say ‘ignore it’ if one should wake up to a barrage of bile clogging-up one’s inbox. Just as scurrilous revelations in a tabloid could cause the teeth-gritting target to apply the sticks-and-stones method of coping, their friends and families may not be so resilient. Indeed, the upset trolls revel in causing often affects the nearest and dearest more than it does those who they’ve chosen to aim at. Not that they care; they relish the damage and enjoy nothing better than provoking a foul-mouthed response that will give them the opportunity to indulge in further threats and intimidation. They’re the inheritors of the old protection rackets; don’t challenge their consensus, agree with their opinion, and most of all, never highlight the numerous flaws in their argument, and you’ll be left alone. But dare to speak out…
Care in the Community robbed us of a location in which to house these pitiful bedroom-ridden assassins and what on one hand can be a unifying, enlightening medium has given them a voice that would once have been silenced with ease. They only ever attack the innocent and the good, and if that were their sole crime, it would be enough of a justification to regard them with absolute contempt. They are a plague fuelled by a solitary emotion – hate; and because of that, they are destined to be consumed by it in a very slow and very painful death. Nobody ever told them that love is all you need.