(First published in The Dominion Post, August 23.)
YOU MAY not have heard of the veteran British actor Steven Berkoff. He hasn’t had an especially illustrious career on screen: mostly minor parts, often playing villains. His most notable work has been in the theatre.
But Berkoff said something recently that must have resonated with anyone who struggles to see merit in the strange phenomenon known as Twitter.
In Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, Berkoff gave an interview in which he poured scorn on people who post their thoughts on Twitter and then recoil in horror when Internet trolls – the malevolent misfits who infest social media looking for people to attack – inevitably turn on them.
“There’s a lot of talk about people being abused on Twitter, women being savagely insulted and degraded,” Berkoff said. “I think, why get into that in the first place? If I jump into a garbage bin, I can’t complain that I’ve got rubbish all over me.”
Warming to his subject, he went on: “It [Twitter] is like a river of filth. If you jump into that river, you are going to be contaminated.”
He made the comment in the midst of a media storm over rape threats on Twitter against the feminist Caroline Criado-Perez, who had campaigned (successfully, as it happens) for Jane Austen to replace Charles Darwin on the £10 banknote from 2017.
Labour MP Stella Creasy, who supported Criado-Perez, also received death and rape threats, including one accompanied by an image of a masked serial killer from the Halloween horror film series.
This was seriously creepy behaviour – the more so when you consider it was over something as unexceptionable as a woman author’s image on a banknote.
But as Berkoff tried to point out, it’s par for the course on Twitter, a medium that provides a perfect platform for psychopaths and embittered nobodies. Twitter is a gift to such people because by enabling them to remain anonymous, it confers a sense of power without personal risk.
The most bizarre aspect of the affair was that Criado-Perez, Creasy and other feminists – including the British Left’s columnist-of-the-moment, Caitlin Moran – turned on Berkoff as if he were trying to suppress their right of free speech.
All he was doing was pointing out the obvious: that Twitter can be a cesspit. As noble as the ideal of free speech is, it’s idle to expect that the Neanderthal trolls on Twitter will show any respect for it.
Demanding the right to exercise one’s freedom of speech on Twitter is like asserting the right to self-expression by strolling into a fundamentalist mosque in northwest Pakistan wearing a bikini. The best you could hope for would be a fleeting moment of satisfaction, knowing you’d struck a blow for individual rights, before you were decapitated.
* * *
EVEN MORE perplexing than feminists’ insistence on their right to attract rape threats, and infinitely more tragic, is the addiction of vulnerable teenagers to social media sites where they are taunted and humiliated, sometimes to the point of suicide.
The Latvian-based website ask.fm seems to be the principal offender. The deaths of four British teenagers have been linked to the site, which allows semi-literate trolls to place vicious messages such as “go die u pathetic emo” and “u ugly – go die evry1 wuld be happy”.
The solution, for any teenager being victimised, seems blindingly obvious: just don’t go there. But they seem incapable of tearing themselves away.
Here’s the bewildering thing. Affected teenagers seem gripped by an addictive malaise which, like self-mutilation and eating disorders, defies logical explanation (as does the unrelenting malice of the perpetrators).
This is the dark side of the digital revolution. The Internet may have empowered people by providing access to information on a scale never before imagined, but it has also created unforeseen opportunities for those bent on doing harm.
* * *
IN THE COURSE of deleting hundreds of spam emails from my computer recently, I noticed a peculiar thing.
A large proportion promised ways to shed weight, backed by the irreproachable authority of celebrities such as Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Jenifer Aniston. Paradoxically, others held out the prospect of miraculous weight gain – but only in a part of my anatomy that propriety precludes me from mentioning.
These things seem to go in cycles. For a long time, most of my spam emails purported to be from various banks and urged me, in comically bad English, to click on a link so that I could remedy a pressing problem with my account.
Those have now abated, to be replaced by emails assuring me that with an enlarged mumble-mumble, I will induce paroxysms of ecstasy in my sexual partners.