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

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.


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Elizabeth Allen

Two things - firstly I am a huge Manchester United fan and have been for as long as I can remember, yet I remember exactly where I was on the day of the Hilsborough disaster. I first heard about it on the radio in the car and then watched in horror the scenes unfolding on the news on the tv. I remember going up to my bedroom and sobbing my heart out at this devastating loss of life. One story in particular that stood out, was a man that had been holding his Father's hand, they were separated and he found later that his Dad was dead. I feel that for anyone to make light of what happened that day is wrong. I do believe, also that to make death threats against people is wrong also. I think Alan Davies has been very wrong and also very naive - I don't think he needs to be punished!
Secondly, what is the obsession with celebrities? There has been far worse cases of cyber bullying or trolling, in the press recently. There was a Mother who recently lost her son in a bike accident and someone decided to post on his account 'I'm not dead Mum, I'm still alive and in hiding'! Is that not the sickest thing someone can do??
Seriously,maybe everyone should take a long hard look at themselves before posting anything, even celebrities. It's easy to make light of something without realising the impact that could have on a fellow human being. We should all take a step back and think 'how would I feel if that happened to me or someone that I love or care about'. Let's all take responsibility for our actions!

April 20 2012 at 6:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Unfortunately it is a sad reflection on what is becoming more than a minority of our society. I've read Alan Davies quotes and he asks why a game cannot go ahead as other clubs with a history of death at a game like Rangers as an example who play on the day of the Ibrox disaster. The things is you would be heartless if you couldn't realise the implications of the comment and you'd think as a guideline of feeling the way The Sun newspaper is despised then any inflammatory comment was going to get furious response. I guess "alternative" comedy feels it has no boundaries as one "comic" - I believe Jimmy Carr - commented on our disabled serviceman from the recent war something along the lines of we'll have a very strong disabled squad for the Para Olympics. Or I believe Billy Connolly who said about Ken Bigley when he was held hostage and the threat of being beheaded he reportedly said something like Oh why don't they just get on with it. They did, Ken was beheaded. I will never watch Connolly again and disposed of his video/cd's and DVD's.
I believe in ID and transparency on the internet because I believe whatever anyone says unless you have something to hide or fear then you should be accountable. Davies was well out of order he has apologised but the best thing to do is maybe think because you post something that looks like destroying any performances in the North West.
As for the threats on the three named then my feeling is they should be brought before the courts but how would you feel if it was your son or daughter killed at Hillsbrough and had reacted out of character towards the comments Davies made though the £1000 allegedly offered to the Hillbrough fund to me was a cheap reaction that again might have been better thought through.

April 13 2012 at 4:17 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I love the fact that my comment got a thumbs-down minus one mark. I can just imagine a furious, nasty little internet troll reading my comment "even if they don't look so good, surely we don't need to be so catty" and thinking, "OH YES WE DO!"
People are funny.

April 12 2012 at 5:41 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Interesting article. Some people are gratuitously offensive, going beyond stating their opinion and just being downright rude and nasty. What I wonder is how dissatisfied these people must be with their own lives. Perhaps they resent the 'stars' because they are wealthier, more famous, often more attractive (whether that's down to airbrushing and good makeup or not) than the people writing the comments. The least attractive celebs seem to be the most well-liked, perhaps because their look is more attainable?! Celebrities are meant to present a look of perfection, because they have a team of makeup artists and stylists working with them every day. Let's just enjoy the fashion, appreciate a good face or a good figure, give credit for talent or success where credit's due.... and even if they don't look so good, surely we don't need to be so catty.
People had a lot to say about how 'ugly' and 'pig-like' Nicki Minaj was recently, but what they can't answer is why she has the number one album in the UK right now. Presumably they feel the need to be mean because she is more successful than they are....
And anyone willing to call someone a pig or a slapper should post a picture of themselves so we can see how attractive they are! Hiding behind the anonymity of a computer screen to taunt people is cowardly. I think a tracking law is downright creepy though, especially if you haven't committed a criminal offense!

April 12 2012 at 12:30 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply