Two sides to Twitter – How to defeat the “Trolls”

Posted By: Richard Thomas

Dr. John Jewell has already posted about the Twitter abuse experienced by sportspeople Stan Collymore and Beth Tweddle. Since John’s piece, two so-called social media “trolls” have pleaded guilty to abusing Caroline Criado-Perez.

To what extent should well-known figures engage with their Twitter followers? A central player in the Collymore incidents was Piers Morgan. Vociferously defending Collymore  he waged a running battle with those expressing the most extreme racist views imaginable. Morgan himself is a prolific tweeter; his relentless and fearless anti-gun lobbying has huge liberal support. As an Arsenal fan, his baiting of rival football fans may be less attractive to many, but undoubtedly Morgan would describe this as “banter”. Indeed, he recently clarified his position – “Twitter banter is fun” he posted, “but tweeting vile abuse/ threats is not. There is a line, and we all know what it is, so don’t cross it”.

This line though, seems rather blurred. In the recent past, on Twitter Morgan has called England’s cricket captain “one of the weakest, spineless most ineffectual lick-spittles in the history of sports captaincy”. He described Charles Saatchi as “repulsive” and Jeremy Clarkson a “racist pot-bellied pig”. Banter? You decide. He engages adversaries more than most would have the appetite for, even encouraging abusers to “feel free to continue abusing me and I’ll continue to correct your spelling”. Nothing placates homophobic racists like pointing out split infinitives and misplaced apostrophes. Of course, nobody deserves to be abused as he was this week under any circumstances, but perhaps toning down his own rhetoric might help prevent it reoccurring.

More generally, there seem four strategies the well-known can adopt when dealing with their Twitter followers.

Ignore them.

The most popular and the least painful. However, it often reduces the medium to simple and one-dimensional self-promotion and imposing views. To be fair though, if you have 3.94 million followers like Piers Morgan, replying to everyone would be problem.

Engage with them, but block at the first sign of trouble.

A halfway-house strategy enabling nastiness to be filtered out, albeit reasonable debate is often suppressed. For example, before last year’s Six Nations decider between Wales and England, I (politely) replied to a media pundit’s very partisan tweet. He was part of the broadcasting team at the game and I suggested, very gently, that his objectivity was a little compromised. He called me a “fool” and blocked me. Ouch.

Engage with them until the bitter end.

The Piers Morgan way. High risk and high reward; fans will appreciate the attention, but inevitably others will use you as a verbal punch bag.

Engage but don’t block, disarm.

Simply follow the maxim that it’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice. On Christmas night, I responded to ITV’s Alastair Stewart’s running commentary of Downton Abbey by suggesting (politely) that many fans currently with their families may be recording it for later but now he was revealing the plot. He retweeted to his 11,000 followers, and many replied (politely) that this was nonsense. I had been voted down, he reported, ending with Christmas greetings to me and my family and – having checked my profile – best wishes for my studies. I replied with bashful thanks; it was the most charming disagreement I’d had in my life.

Twitter will no doubt be vilified for a week or two, but for all the trolls, threats, testiness and trauma it’s worth remembering that at its best, Twitter is useful, entertaining and fun.