For almost a year now, I’ve been receiving abusive and sexually explicit emails about a fellow technology journalist, who writes for one of the world’s most respected publications. The messages are sent from anonymous mailing services. They can neither be responded to nor traced.
The frequency of these messages stepped up after The Kernel published revelations about Menshn co-founder Luke Bozier’s private life. I expect the sender thought we would at least allude to his revelations in The Kernel’s weekly newsletter, which often reports rumours from the media and entrepreneurial worlds. We did not.
Regardless, I am sorry to say that the subject of these missives has been compelled to go public about an intensely private matter, lest his troll act first. Today, Ben Rooney, technology editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe has revealed on his personal blog that he is gay. That Ben is a married father of four makes his disclosure particularly brave.
It is fruitless to try to understand the sickening motivations of internet trolls so I won’t bother. For nearly a year I have been the target of one who is seeking to cause me embarrassment by threatening to out me.
To begin with I ignored it, but of late this odious troll has stepped up the campaign. It is my belief he will continue until satisfied. It makes me incredibly angry that I am forced to take this step and do so only with the most extreme reluctance. If my private life is to be compromised it will be on my terms and not on those of some troll.
More than six years ago I told my wife, immediate family, and a small number of very close friends, that I was gay. With professional support we rebuilt our marriage and together my wife and I continue to provide a loving home for our children.
I know by revealing this I am (a) doing the troll’s work for them and (b) running the risk of making a story where there isn’t one. But it was this, or live with the intolerable and constant threat from this troll and I am not prepared to give him that power. So, there you go.
Ben was not available for comment today.
This should never have happened. But, thanks to the prevailing, anything-goes milieu of anonymous trolling, hatred and abuse on the internet, a growing number of public and semi-public figures are finding themselves subject to relentless hate campaigns.
We can place the discomfort and misery Ben has been subjected to this year squarely within today’s cultural landscape of rampant, uncontrollable social media mayhem. Divorced from the consequences of their actions, anonymous and pseudonymous haters are emboldened to make wild allegations, to defame and to make a misery of their targets’ lives.
Lawsuits from the rich and famous and articles by journalists sick of the burden of bitter recriminations and false allegations occasionally remind the militant masses that, once in a while, one of their number will be catapulted into infamy and held accountable for their actions. But such moments of justice are few and far between.
Because what has happened in the last five years is that the public has proven itself unworthy of the power social media has given it. Twitter’s greatest contribution to global discourse has not been any grand revolution, but rather the sinister, growing power of the ignorant, abusive, unaccountable mob.
And, of course, of the determined, toxic individual troll, who has been empowered by this new culture. Creepy, obsessive weirdos with yellowing underpants and inferiority complexes can now bully and humiliate good men. That is, they can try.
Social networks have failed to fulfil their transformative political and social promise, instead enabling a generation of loud-mouthed bullies and arrogant, self-regarding blowhards. Is it any wonder that the governing and opinion-forming classes now reject the technocracy they once embraced?
Brendan O’Neill, a writer I normally admire, wrote disingenuously this week, for the increasingly Luddite Telegraph blogs site, about precisely this problem. He was, admittedly, right to observe that 2012 was the year politicians and journalists went to war on the internet. But his subsequent defence of the rabid hordes was perverse.
O’Neill complains that the ruling classes “denounce us as trolls and write off web-based political engagement as a gigantic failed experiment”. Journalists and politicians “have opted to stew in their aloofness, rather than address it”, he opines.
(That “us” grates on me. I mean, O’Neill has a Telegraph blog and edits the popular Spiked! comment site, yet he apparently doesn’t consider himself one of the opinion-forming classes. This is plainly absurd.)
Here’s a revelation for Brendan: politicians and the media act as though they are a breed apart from the general public because, by and large, they are. They’re better educated, better behaved, and – perhaps most importantly – a great deal more responsible and humane.
They deserve better than this.
They certainly do not deserve to be manoeuvred into outing themselves after a sick campaign of persecution from someone with an obscure grudge, for no greater apparent motivation than the assailant’s joy in watching a decent man – and a respected journalist – suffer needlessly, with no thought spared for his family.
I’ve had my own, very public, struggles with an anonymous hate tweeter, who spews bile and lies on a weekly basis. I’ve never engaged with him, nor even, I don’t think, even acknowledged his existence before, but I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that after a while it gets to you.
You’re told by friends, colleagues and lawyers that it’s best simply to ignore it. But the unending torrent of untruths, smears, insinuations, sort of plausible but actually bollocks allegations and plain old hatred can wear you down. Every journalist experiences something similar.
We all have our own “fan clubs” on the internet these days, and the message to anyone with a social media profile and a private life is clear: any one of us could be next.
I’m sick of the oppressive hegemony of the faceless internet hater. I’m disgusted by what happened to my friend this week. And I’m hearing much the same from my journalist friends. So watch your mouths, trolls. We’re coming for you.