Trolling Makes Us All Truman
The sad death of Brenda Leyland, the woman who allegedly Twitter trolled Kate and Gerry McCann over the disappearance of their daughter, demonstrates again how our sense of anonymity is failing to adjust to the realities of social media.
Ms Leyland, whose death is not being treated as suspicious, was one of dozens who reportedly stood accused of posting inflammatory online messages about the McCann family.
A few days ago she was asked by a television reporter why she had done so. (There may and perhaps should now be questions asked about TV's habit of doorstepping people on camera, when they have been accused but not charged.)
Ms Leyland replied: 'I'm entitled to do that', before adding that she hoped she hadn't broken the law.
Twitter, like most other forms of social media, is not a like-for-like alternative to a private telephone call, or even a megaphone that can be used from behind a veil of secrecy.
Social media are by design social. They are forms of broadcast media, where the traditional model of the few-broadcasting-to-the-many has been turned on its head.
Social media allow every user to become a broadcaster of sorts – able to share stories, opinions and ideas with as many listeners, readers or viewers as will ‘tune in’.
The ease with which messages can be sent, however, is out of all proportion with their potential impact, both on the sender and on others who may be the subject of their missives.
Doubtless, the parents of Madeleine McCann have suffered terribly, not only as a consequence of the apparent kidnapping itself but as a result of the way some people seem intent on blaming them for their situation.
Whatever their emotional reaction to the case, most people won’t claim to know all of the details surrounding Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. Blanket media coverage cannot guarantee us a detailed perspective.
As Malcolm Muggeridge once noted, ‘The camera always lies.’ Without any effort to deceive, just the mere fact that someone points a lens in one direction will mean that other things will be missed.
Recognising this, the majority of social media exponents will feel unqualified to comment on the case, aside from expressing empathy for the McCann family. Or perhaps sharing their thoughts on the way the case has been handled by officials.
The hopefully minor number who do venture an opinion on who-did-what-and-when will be wary of crossing the line from opinion into personal abuse or slanderous illegality. They will understand that they are making public declarations which can be read by anyone – if not now, then in the future.
Tweets and similar messages appear to be disposable and temporary, because they take only a few seconds to construct and send.
They form, however, a potentially permanent record. What goes digital normally stays digital, either because we forget to expunge what we’ve entered, or because it is almost impossible even for experts to totally remove material from computers. Somehow, a digital echo always seems to remain.
Facebook claims more than 1.3 billion registered accounts. On Twitter, an estimated 58 million messages, or tweets, are published every day.
The U.S. Library of Congress reportedly collects all published tweets, with the aim of passing the records to future generations of historians. In an age when letter writing and the like are reduced to almost zero, social media will provide a rich source of research data on the state of the world in our time.
Without recognising this, or in spite of it, some people feel free to share provocative, angry and, in many cases, slanderous remarks about people they’ve never met and whose stories they know only in a very fragmentary way.
The laws surrounding slander, personal abuse and stalking have been slow to catch up with the new realities of social media. Even now, police do not have the resources – or probably the training – to follow up all but the most vicious of personal attacks online.
The tragedy of all this is that some so-called ‘trolls’ will never have set out to become agents of vilification. They will have grown into the role incrementally, as they have gradually come to believe themselves invulnerable or hidden from public view.
They may have come to believe that only their ideas were in the public space and that even if their identities became known, their online opinions would be divorced in the public mind from their true, offline characters.
This is a dangerous assumption in the age of ‘onlife’ – the blending together of the online and offline worlds through near ubiquitous use of digital gadgets.
So much of our lives now involve digital technologies at some level; so many of our conversations are mediated by keyboard, screen and headset, that we blur the lines between artifice and reality.
Indeed, we sometimes mistakenly believe that the internet is in fact about artifice; that what we do in the cybersphere is somehow less real than how we behave in ‘real’ life. Where once ‘artificial’ and ‘reality’ were words we wouldn’t naturally fit together, artificial reality is now an accepted part of our daily discourse.
Augmented reality is also now beginning to make its presence felt. Devices like the ingenious Google Glass offer to inform almost every step we take in the street and, if we like, to record those steps for future posterity via life-logging.
In so many ways, our internet engagement has become a large chunk of our real lives.
Arguably, more than a few of us are in the process of becoming something like a central character in our own Truman Show – except, of course, that in our case we are turning the invisible cameras on ourselves.
Luddism is not the solution here. The internet has brought so many benefits and most of us wouldn’t dream of trying to turn back the digital clock.
Yet we must constantly remind ourselves that our technologies must be made to serve us and never allowed to define us.
That realisation sadly came too late for Ms Leyland. For those who knew her, hopefully, her entire life will not be defined by the manner of her death or by the furore that preceded it.
Hopefully, too, those of us who did not know her will look within our own selves, pausing to consider the ancient maxim: ‘Life and death are in the power of the tongue.’