Or, how to recognise trolls, snark, and bat crazy sociopaths on the Internet.
The idea for this subject, trolls and snark and internet abuse, issues from an unsolicited Twitter encounter with someone calling his or herself ‘History Woman’, claiming to be an academic. At first gender was uncertain for the language she used was gutter-male. “These fuckers from south of the border … no words too strong”, she screamed at some issue or other. It transpires he is a she, Jill Stephenson, so let’s take ‘her’ at faceless value.
It appears her sole cause in life is to remove the democratically elected SNP from the political map, a goal overshadowing any accomplishment in research or publication- one mighty big ambition. She has taken up her self-appointed cause with a vengeance. Referring to the Referendum vote she said, “We have saved Scotland” – the ‘we’ a classic hallmark of the troll, an allusion to an in-house, all-knowing, sniggering clique.
Curiously for an academic her language register is the construction of the uneducated, filled with street colloquialisms such as, “nutters”, “yeah”, “you don’t get it”, and the fashionable symbol of irony “erm.”
I half-expected a sarcastic ‘hello?’ followed by ‘get real!’
As soon as one insult was posted another followed breathlessly without waiting for a reply, temper furious. As an unfortunate victim of her ire she provoked, insulted and then blocked me, another facet of the troll as internet bully – you’ve been expunged, censored.
Apparently she has form, latterly attracting scorn for describing a female SNP MP as ‘a slut’. She refused to apologise, again exhibiting the mentality of the troll. Her tweets are no more than empty slogans sliding from accusation bordering on libel, “that dishonest government ” to personal abuse. There is no joined-up rational argument.
In ‘friendly’ chats with like minds she discusses closing down Holyrood Parliament, and studiously refrains from condemning Twitter associates who advocate hanging, shooting, or drowning SNP voters.
The folly of instant opinion
No academic I know with any integrity and common sense, be they in the arts, sciences, or the Royal College of Surgeons, resorts to Twitter for learned discourse, let alone stoop to demean and defame individuals or government. I associate with many, from Edinburgh to Cambridge. The only instance I know of concerned an insecure English poet that used anonymity to rubbish the work of colleagues competing for a prestigious university post – she was discovered, her name broadcast, and she apologised.
Despite a few academics having a command of English that can scarify tar from a road, capable of envy of another’s success as much as the rest of us, they simply would not endanger their reputation with intemperate accusation in a public forum. They have at their disposal open letters to the press, e-mail, formal university and academy outlets, media interviews. They are, after all, part of the power elite. Those are the perks of their place in society. Their modus operandi involves making a complaint in a well-mannered, firm but understated way – traditional English reserve. Some are posh Jocks.
Academics who do indulge in Twitter abuse are invariably selling pseudo intellectualism, exploiting their supposed academic credentials for personal gain. They are not scholars.
Let’s begin with the obvious: Twitter is useless for developing intellectual ideas. It’s a simple mechanism for relaying brief, instant messages. It’s full of banter, what we used to call ribaldry. Now and then you’ll come across a good epigram, but mostly bad grammar.
Trolling for beginners
Ceaseless tirades are the tactic of the experienced troll. They never answer a direct question; never defer to erudition. They think opinion and conjecture are facts. When accused of making banal assertion they attack the other person’s intelligence, and if a good point is made shout it down with high-handed condemnation and jeering.
If possible, they call in a couple of supporters who pretend they’re objective bystanders yet agree with the troll in toto. If a debater refuses to lower their standards and leaves the fray, the troll will accuse him or her of running away from the argument. Trolls like to pretend they are masters of their universe, and ours.
When the term ‘troll’ first appeared it was appended to people who persisted in answering every post aggressively causing maximum disruption to the topic under discussion. A troll is always right even when wrong. They’re the equivalent of the car driver who turns homicidal if ever overtaken.
A troll hopes to make your day a miserable one, and his a triumph of besting you and everybody. To feel superior he only needs to say he’s dealing with idiots. (History Woman uses that ploy.) Trolls like insult and abuse. Their opponents are made to feel impotent, thoroughly inadequate and uncomfortable.
However, we should be cautious. Today trolling is applied generally. Anybody and everybody is accused of being a troll, though they may employ impeccable good manners. All it takes is one post too many and the other contributor thoroughly annoyed.
With trolling goes narcissism.
When JK Rowling makes a comment about alleged internet abusers (often people with progressive politics she dislikes) she knows the press will seize upon it and provide her with publicity – as if she needed it. Who can argue that that is not trolling?
Trolling is a way of goading people you dislike. If she complains about criticism of her work she reduces herself to Jack Vettriano, one of Scotland’s most successful and wealthiest artists who was forever moaning his work was not appreciated.
When ‘History Woman’ declares Scotland’s government is dishonest and doesn’t provide concrete evidence or specific example that is unassailable, she moves from trolling to scurrilous accusation, baseless, undignified, aberrant behaviour. The more she is derided the more she thinks she is a sane but lone voice, someone special.
The opposite end of Billy Goat Troll is the sociopath. The internet has unlocked a fire door allowing every sociopath with a jerrycan and a box of matches. They are ready to ignite a blast of napalm on all they detest in an effort to tell the world their personal situation is the result of everybody’s stupidity, never their inadequacy – and we must all pay!
We all know at least one tortured soul who has taken to social sites for obscure reasons of personal revenge. Sociologists tell us we’d be surprised at how many sociopaths there are walking around the streets in daily life.
They are identified by an inability to learn from experience, show no moral principle, a lack of remorse, a remoteness, pathologically egocentric, an inability to show affection or praise, overall, poor social behaviour, simply put – a total bastard.
What motivates them? They’re suffering from excruciating envy, battered pride, delusions of grandeur, holding ambition way beyond ability. Their self-perception is skewed and dented. For example, they’re the fixated Brit nationalist holding tight to established order. They’re not the Chosen One and that drives them crazy. They’re outsiders who want to displace insiders.
Extreme sociopaths will do their best, toxic followers too, to dox your identity. (Doxing/Dox: a corruption of documents.) The verb means to search for, and publish, private or identifying information about a particular individual on the Internet, with malicious intent. When that happens they threaten anybody who dares come to your aid.
Snark and its meaning
Though trolls infest every social site, they have less influence now that many of us know how to use the internet, and how to handle abuse. Trolling has been overtaken by snark.
Snark comes from Lewis Carroll’s poem, ‘The Hunting of the Snark‘, subtitled, ‘An Agony In Eight Fits.’ (Fits: Victorian for the Italian ‘canto’: in divisions.) In it, the Snark is removed from existence, vanquished. The snarker hopes to achieve the same end for their intended victim. But the hunt never ends. It is an obsession.
Serious snark differs from trolling in that the person using it aims to assassinate another person’s character or reputation, holding on like grim death to make innuendo and fabrication stick, until that person withdraws or is punished by their peers, the public thinking there is no smoke without fire.
Imagine if a few abusers took on Mary Poppins. If unbelievably, fantastically correct Mary had ever taken to Twitter she’d be a physical and mental wreck by now, felled by envious tormentors accusing her of all sorts of devilish things, and only putting on a persona of firm geniality to fool the public and corrupt little children. Parents who read social sites would get thrown by the rumour and gossip, and not trust her with their children. No one can be that perfect, they’d say.
Mediocrity and conformity
Snark functions as an enforcer of mediocrity. It tries hard to impose conformity. It is poisoned arrows fired with great accuracy. The unwary, the inexperienced can be unnerved by the ferocity of attacks, and indeed, there are recorded instances where a young person targeted has taken their life rather than be thought of as worthless, and a laughing stock.
This isn’t tough cynicism we are talking about, or incisiveness. It’s fatuous sarcasm and flat out cruelty. It is sadism by internet. The malice behind snark is always palpable.
In the USA it’s an internet crime to denigrate by snark if the victim can prove their reputation is harmed. Constructive harassment is a felony.
The British version
Private Eye has used snark for generations. You could say it was the blogger of its day before the internet was invented. It published short paragraphs lampooning politicians and councillors. Most of the magazine’s content was, and still is, repetitious.
Articles don’t always have a conclusion but tail away. I find it funny in a school boy way, a very Oxbridge school boy. But it’s often reckless in its methods.
Sometimes it offers no evidence to back its opinions. When a Ugandan official was caught ‘upstairs with a mistress’ in flagrante delicto, the magazine dubbed all such adventures in pillow land ‘Ugandan Affairs.’ Unfortunately, after overuse by the magazine and the public who delighted in the phrase, it got tossed at anybody absent without leave, whether they were bonking their secretary, or spending a few hours study in the National Library. When that happens it isn’t snark. It’s smear.
Snark and satire
Satire is derived from the Latin satura lanx – a dish of fruits, a medley.
Satire is critical of manners, vices, social conventions, and social types. Satire is the craft of practicing irony. When a comic describes Donald Trump as a prophylactic in a toupee (my phrase) he’s saying this is no way a businessman should behave.
The late comedian Lenny Bruce is regarded as the originator of snark. Our own Frankie Boyle has taken it to lengths Bruce would never have dreamed of, and had he tried, got arrested and fined for the umpteenth time, probably imprisoned.
Charlie Brooker, a social commentator whose appearance is permanently greasy and unkempt no matter how much he showers, has made an early career in snark. I’m unsure where it will take him for his appears to have no specific goal in mind, unlike the much missed genius of Jon Stewart and his Daily Show. That show, now with a new presenter, was and is still hell bent on knocking lumps out of vainglorious politicians of little brain and massive ego.
Snark as art
Stephen Colbert, one of Stewart’s most successful contributors, now with his own late night show on American television, was invited to make a speech at a Whitehouse dinner when Bush was president. His snark-satire is memorable.
“Reality is a well known liberal bias … I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound – with the most powerful staged photo opportunities in the world.”
Savage insult designed to expose contradictions is a good thing, hence there is a degree of snark that is justified. It crosses a fine line into wit.
The USA magazine The Onion is a master of understated snark. In style it imitates our tabloids but presents its headlines and text as if real news. (Our tabloids do the same thing but with them its propaganda!) The Onion has its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek. So skilled is The Onion at its task some readers are known to believe what they’re reading is genuine news.
The creators of The Simpsons, and Southpark, and Family Guy are in the same camp. They show up our foibles. They’re entertainers in the mode of the orators and poets of ancient Greece and Rome. When the Greeks and Trojans met on the battlefield they got stuck into each other with verbal insults and abuse. It could last for days until they got bored and went their separate ways, or, goaded to the point of furious temper, went into battle.
The BBC’s version of snark
Mid-twentieth century acerbic novelists such as Evelyn Waugh made their name with a kind of Oxbridge snark, and always following fashion when safe to do so.
The BBC similarly played safe. When it couldn’t resist public taste any longer it screwed up courage to broadcast it’s own politically satirical material in That Was The Week That Was, (TWTWTW – TW3) a cornucopia of satirical sketches on political issues of the day. A late night Saturday show it attracted millions of viewers, and a lot of outrage from ‘Colonel Smithers, KSVO., Shocked, Lytham St Annes.’ It made the reputation of its cast, namely front man David Frost.
Television’s jaded version of Private Eye, the humorous Have I Got News For You, (HIGNFY) has less satire than meets the ear, an undesirable omission in our corrupt and fatuous age. The show is after laughs more than insight. It prefers instead to exploit base jokes about ethnic stereotypes, reinterpret photographs, roast guests, and pleasure itself in an endless supply of surreal animal humour mainly coined by the affable Paul Merton. It has said some truly ignorant and stupid things about Scotland’s political ambitions and history, most often from the mouth of Ian Hyslop, who really ought to know better.
With magazine and television derivative sharing the same public school boy editor, Ian Hyslop, there is the whiff of a ruling class mentality. You are easily fooled by laughter. Not even Merton’s cockney jokes can mitigate the right-wing disdain that HIGNFY circulates.
Scotland’s democratic ambitions get it in the neck regularly, the repeated racist joke being Scots hate vegetables and only scoff deep fried Mars Bars. (One idiotic fish fryer created them as a publicity gimmick; the rest is naff history.) Snark can’t be relied upon to be accurate. When the Beatles first appeared HIGNFY’s pater, the scornful Private Eye, consistently dubbed the group ‘The Turds.’
Sadly, the genuinely satirical puppet show ‘Spitting Image’ was cut off in its prime.
Snark as cattle prod
Snark is used to prick radical chic. The people it’s aiming at are the elite in their two million pound homes, penthouse suites, or luxury apartments, gathered together to discuss some social cause or other and perhaps set up a trust fund, or write a letter to the editor of the Times about their concerns for the poor and the downtrodden. They command lots of attention. JK Rowling is a modern day version.
The playwright Harold Pinter, born in Hackney, a socialist, rose from humble origins to a distinguished literary career and a Nobel Prize. He lived the high life from well-earned fees and royalties from his plays and film adaptations, gathering a comfy coterie of friends around him to discuss, for example, the invasion of Iraq over a bottle of best Bollinger. He became known as a champagne socialist.
Coincidentally, enemies of Scottish independence have embarked on a similar accusation without evidence, as is their habit, simply as a smear – calling those in administration ‘champagne nationalists’. There’s a touch of the vindictive in that sleight.
The derision is not very imaginative, I grant you, but when you have no policies to peddle you might as well resort to insinuation. How about patisserie patriots, or escargot evangelists, soufflé snufflers, or tartan tartelettes?
The game they play is called ‘throw some mud, see what sticks’, the lowest form of snark.
By its very nature, snark is philistine. It will not defer to the artistically or intellectually ambitious for it is always on the lookout for pomposity. It loathes money and success.
“It is an extreme rudeness to tax any man in public with an untruth”, said Queen Elizabeth’s squeeze and tobacco merchant, Sir Walter Raleigh. “But all that’s rude should not be met with death.” He had a point. Nobody should die over slander.
On the literary side, our newspapers indulge in snark every day, rumour, gossip, slyly constructed articles implying one thing when there is no such evidence.
Kings of snark
On a loftier plain, Gore Vidal was a master of high snark. He could be savagely honest. “When a friend succeeds, something in me dies”, he once said ruefully. Having gotten into a verbal and then physical fight with Norman Mailer, a far less able essayist, Mailer, a writer known for his excessive drinking habits and misogyny, slugged Vidal one on the jaw. As Vidal arose off the floor he said, “Words fail you, again, Norman.”
Vidal’s short essays are the pinnacle of beautifully crafted snark based on a keen perception of human nature and moreover, the facts. Which reminds me…
Conjecture is not a fact, opinion is not a fact, but the worst snark thinks they are.
Our television presenters and puerile pundits smother themselves in snark, clubbing celebrities, demeaning actors as ‘luvvies’, and politicians as useless or lefties and losers. Their banter has no limits on it because it’s accepted as personal opinion, but it’s corrosive. It narrows the debate and diverts from important core issues.
Snark is endemic. Most of it is inane, and that on Twitter is low grade stuff.
And finally, anonymity
An admission: I chose to use a pseudonym to protect my closest family, all of whom are public figures. I don’t want people to presume my opinion is their opinion. And I don’t want them confronted because of it. An innocent relative can get tarnished.
I also think anonymity forces the reader to concentrate on the words and opinion, and not give them extra weight because a professor has written them, or some person with status in society, such as a vacuous celebrity.
In addition, by covering my name I don’t use the internet as a means of self-promotion. It isn’t in my nature. In any event, it’s a blizzard of envy out there. The press has already discovered Jeremy Corbyn’s brother, a man of decidedly eccentric opinions on climate change. And your sympathy goes out to the wife of a disgraced MP, forced to stand by his side before the battery of cameras and microphones, silent and loyal, while he comes clean about his Internet double life.
I have no doubt some power elite know exactly who I am, my biography makes that trail easy to follow. Then again, newspaper editors don’t sign their opinion editorials. They are the voice of the establishment and have no reason to be accountable. I am accountable.
Personally speaking, I’d rather we use our real names; stand by our opinion and be prepared to defend it. On the other hand, if I lived under an authoritarian regime, one that suppressed dissent, I’d be relieved not to use my real name lest the knock in the night came to my door.
The British establishment doesn’t suppress opinion by force, so it reverts to other methods, misrepresentation, marginalising effective voices, demonising, public ridicule, and just as often by special branch methods, tainting reputations with false accusation of sexual perversity. You can be certain opponents of truth are using the internet to spread doubt and fear, and assassinate.
And that, M’Lord, sums up the case for the prosecution
That’s snark in three thousand words. Feel free to disagree and post inflammatory language to state your case.
Snark can range from a false knowingness expressed by a nonentity, to memorable wit penned by a great writer. What is George Orwell’s essay on English mores and patriotism, ‘My Country Right or Left’ but elevated snark?
What is this essay but a benign form of snark? I like to think I write satire. (Cue comments marked “hahahahaha!”) I know it falls into irresistible snark now and again.
You can avoid snark and personal abuse, simply by not joining Twitter, or stop using social sites. You can jump the snark and start reading good literature. It will expand your concentration span.
Summary – So, what of ‘History Woman’?
Is she the over-wrought academic, the harpy she’s accused of being, embarrassing her university, a troll, a snarker, or a fully rounded sociopath? Or is that a loaded statement, and she’s a terribly misjudged figure? I’ll leave the reader to make that judgement.
One thing for certain: she’s a hellishly dogged conformist. She’s bitter, and that’s very unhealthy. Worse, she’s debasing the democratic process, and more troubling, intent on stopping it in its tracks.
If she continues along that route she knows she’s cutting a path to her own extinction.
Then again, that’s only my opinion.