Why do (probably) decent people become bullies when they're online?

Filed under: iDaily


What do Noel Edmonds, Alexandra Burke and Alan Davies all have in common? A few days ago you'd have said: not a lot. But just recently, they have all joined a club – the one whose members are, apparently, desired dead by scores of faceless internet users. Nice huh?



Why do (probably) decent people become bullies when they're online? Photo: Film Magic



I wrote for MyDaily last week about a proposed law that would see everyone's online movements potentially trackable, permanently, in real time. It would be another little piece of freedom slipping through our fingers, I said. But this is the other side to that coin isn't it? The flip side of having an amazing resource with which we can learn, communicate and voice our opinions, is that some idiots will abuse it. You probably already know that online abuse has become so common, there's officially a verb for it:

Troll (verb, computing): to leave an insulting message on a part of the internet for no reason. (Cambridge Dictionaries Online)

Admittedly, the people who have been littering Alan Davies' Twitter account with vile threats and insults do not believe they are doing so for no reason. He has upset a lot of people in Liverpool by saying he doesn't understand why Liverpool FC won't play a match on April 15, the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. He's also not really helped things by quipping he'll be leaving his house wearing a 'Scouser' disguise (shell suited and booted, a la Harry Enfield).

No one condones his insensitivity (which he has repeatedly apologised for) and his, er, sense of humour is probably misplaced. But does he really deserve: "Hey lispy tw*t, I would say cancel your gig in Liverpool but no f*cker has watched your tour anyway"? Or what about: "You made fun of dead people so the logical thing to do is make you one of the dead people"?

If you listen to the podcast that has caused the furore, he doesn't make fun of the people who died at all, but that's not stopping all the jumping on the bandwagon. I can't even include a comment which tells Davies what would happen to him if he went to Liverpool.

It's all gone quiet on Davies' Twitter page now – hopefully he's still with us on this earthly plane and simply letting the dust settle. But what about Alexandra Burke? She required police protection at a lipgloss launch on Wednesday night, having been bombarded with Twitter messages including one saying: "I'm going to kill you tonight".

Noel Edmonds, meanwhile, made the papers a few days ago, having met a student who'd set up a Facebook page entitled 'Somebody please kill Noel Edmonds'. I don't think there's anything particularly hateful about good old Noel, so why do people do it? Envy? Spite? Just because they love the sounds of their own voices?

Let's be clear here – anyone who makes death threats online does risk some serious repercussions (section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 states it is an offence to post or send messages which are "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character"). But there's something about the anonymity of the worldwide web which seems to bring out the worst in people: the internet is absolutely heaving with nasty comments, not to mention vulgar sexual innuendo (not always even innuendo actually).

Just have a quick look at some of the stories on this website. You have to wonder whether freddiefoden would have the conviction to call Imogen Thomas a dirty slut to her face or, if lipgate5 met "ugly trollop" Imogen in the street, would they really "treet [sic] it like a rabid dog"?

Vile, vile, vile. What's the point of this nastiness? What's to be gained by it? Not much – but potentially we have a lot to lose. I wonder, if online abuse continues to escalate, how long it might be before the authorities decide it would be cheaper and more sensible to properly police or inhibit the internet, than to act as personal escorts for terrified celebrities?

We all value freedom of speech and, of course, not everyone is sitting at home tapping out threats of murder and violence. But even if just to make the internet a nicer place, would it be so hard for the potty mouths to temper their language and behave online like the decent human beings they probably are in real life?

I know Alan Davies has caused some upset, but it's a real shame that the 'strongly worded letter' of old has been replaced by unimaginative and instant barrages of four-lettered words.