JUST a year ago the internet was a utopia: from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring, it seemed liberation was just a tweet away. We felt exhilarated by its immediacy and instant access to breaking news across the globe. But the last 12 months have seen sinister elements creeping in as ‘trolls’ and ‘twitch-hunts’ resulted in more and more negative stories about the web.
Just last week, best-selling Birmingham author RJ Ellory was forced to apologise after he was caught praising his own crime thrillers in fake reviews on Amazon, including ones trashing his peers.
Of course, these days, everyone seems to have some complaint, as bullying, sexism and racism all seem to be stalking the net. And then there’s the spectre of unseemly celebrity spats.
Amusingly, the online fight club has brought out the inner detective in several crime novelists — and inner cad in at least one, and possibly others.
Armagh-based crime writer Stuart Neville has published evidence saying he and others have been targeted by another Irish author, who’s been writing negative reviews on Amazon.
“I’d liken it to driving: you’re insulated in a bubble, so people will shout and make hand gestures. The internet is like that,” says Neville.
Masquerading as a series disappointed readers, the author of the reviews appears to have spent a few hours too many in front of the keyboard.
This practice of masquerading as multiple people — known as “sockpuppets” in internet jargon — is not uncommon. Former journalist Johann Hari admitted smearing rivals on Wikipedia under a false name and crusading blogger and lawyer Glenn Greenwald was accused of acting similarly on blog comments in 2006.
When it comes to Amazon reviews, though, book sales are at stake, not just hurt feelings.
Neville says bad reviews and even professional jealousies are something writers have to expect, and take on the chin. The internet, he says, still has its positive side.
“Without the internet I probably wouldn’t have a writing career. My literary agent took me on after finding my stories online and it snowballed from there.”
The latest accusation comes in the wake of several other high profile writers dissing their competitors, as if they themselves were rappers with verbal vendettas. Sweden-based author Jeremy Duns uncovered fellow writer RJ Ellory badmouthing his colleagues on Amazon.
“It’s too great a temptation, it’s too easy, and some of these people [referring to one well-known, but now disgraced, journalist] are just too screwed-up to not do it,” says Duns.
Ellory has since admitted writing negative reviews under a variety of fake identities.
In previous eras, literary feuds involved booze and brawling as much as bad-mouthing, although even George Bernard Shaw is said to have written reviews of his own plays under a pseudonym. But on today’s internet, it’s a far shadowy war of weasel words.
“It’s not a glamorous kind of arsholishness, to call yourself ‘Jelly Bean’ and give people bad reviews,” says Duns.
Even the Olympics didn’t escape the online firestorm. Greek athlete Voula Papachristou was sent packing for tweeting: “With so many Africans in Greece, at least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat homemade food!” British Conservative party MP Aidan Burley, meanwhile, was roundly condemned for using Twitter to describe the Olympic opening ceremony as “leftie multicultural crap”.
The internet is not only home to conspiracy theorists, some say it helps foster conspiratorial thinking in the mainstream.
One critic of the free-for-all is Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur and, this year, Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us.
“Anonymity was seen as a right, as a sort of freedom of speech thing, but with the right to freedom of speech, in a democratic system where you don’t get put in jail and tortured for what you say [politically], there needs to be accountability,” says Keen, speaking on the phone from California.
“With freedom comes responsibility. You can’t just say anything you want.
“Footballers now are getting into trouble, I mean it gets to be silly, but when you say something in public and people know who you are, you are responsible and you shouldn’t be allowed to say stuff that’s destructive and insulting to other people and get away with it.”
Keen takes a strong line on the matter: “You can quote me: I’d like to see the jails bulging with people who have been caught insulting people online.”
Julian Assange, founder of whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, personifies the internet’s stellar rise as a tool of social and political liberation, as well as its fall, like a failed rocket.
Once adored as the poster boy for internet revolution, Assange is now widely regarded with suspicion, holed-up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London rather than facing prosectors in Sweden, where he is wanted in relation to alleged sexual assaults.
Wikileaks’ supporters claim Assange is a victim of a US-led conspiracy to see him executed, or at least locked-up in the legal limbo that is Guantánamo Bay. His detractors say he is a fugitive from justice whose persecution fantasies border on narcissism.
Whatever the truth, there’s no question that Assange’s turnaround in the public imagination, from celebrity crusader to creepy conspiracist, mirrors the incoherence of the simultaneously utopian and dystopian visions of the internet.
If Assange is a narcissist he’d not be the first one on the internet.
Celebrities have embraced social media like Twitter with all the grace of a toddler mashing a laptop keyboard, revealing the unmediated celebrity experience to be an unedifying spectacle.
In 2011, singer and actress Courtney Love found herself temporarily banned from Twitter — and handing-out over $400,000 in an out-of-court settlement — after a spat with fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir.
A year later she blasted her late husband Kurt Cobain’s ex-bandmate Dave Grohl, over rumours that he had sex with her daughter Frances Bean Cobain.
In recent weeks, caustic Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle has become an online hate figure for his jokes mocking paralympians.
Closer to home, Sinéad O’Connor has had more than one brush with online notoriety.
At one point O’Connor quit Twitter, though she has since returned, complaining to New York’s V Magazine: “I’ve stopped Twitter now because, although it was fun for a while, I had to stop because I was getting too much abuse.”
O’Connor said people were taking her musings “too seriously”. On the other hand, she was openly searching online for a sex partner — hardly something that’s going to be ignored. In fairness to O’Connor, her anarchic sense of humour and talent for self-deprecation, self-mockery even, is often missed when her tweets are printed out of context.
GERRY DOYLE from Ennis in County Clare first ventured online in 1996 and says “trolling” was already common: “Somebody would come in and toss in something about the good guys winning the Battle of the Boyne in a nationalist forum,” he says.
Slandered in the early days of the internet, Doyle at one point considered taking legal action after a barrister told him he had a defamation case. In the end he decided life was too short to spend it in front of judges simply because of what strangers type into a computer.
“People seem to think they’re being victimised, but you have to realise people wouldn’t dare speak to you like that face-to-face.”
Doyle says he is often disappointed by quasi-political “memes” passed around on Facebook by his friends.
“People are self-reinforcing all the time. They all get stuff from the same places, don’t check it and endlessly recycle it. Then, when you question it, you’re the lunatic. People fly off the handle very quickly,” he says.
The early boosters of the internet promised it would produce a “hive mind”. It seems we got it.