The Olympics have given the Twitter trolls an outlet. But the big names are fighting back, says Noelle McCarthy
FOR Katie Taylor’s fans, Twitter was the place to be this week. Within seconds of Taylor’s first win on Monday, Twitter was jammed with fans expressing jubilation in 140 characters or less. “You’re my hero Katie! Brilliant absolutely brilliant — a trillion congrats”, tweeted Miriam O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan’s fellow TV host Anna Daly tweeted “Our girl bringing Dundrum town centre to a standstill. We are proud to call you ours Katie.” As messages of support piled up at the hashtag #Katie, Dustin the Turkey tweeted “GWAN YA GOOD THING KATIE TAYLOR!!!! Proof ya don’t mess with motts from Bray.”
The Olympics have become a showcase for tweeting. Twitter is the place to be if you want everyone to hear what you say. It’s quick and it’s easy. It’s a network for fans and spectators, but also for the athletes to post real-time reactions to their performances.
Twitter is letting everyone come to the Olympic party. But just as with every party, even on social networks it only takes one idiot to wreck the buzz for the rest of us. And so it is on Twitter, as the events of the last couple of weeks have shown.
As venomous attacks on high-profile sports people and broadcasters continue to make the news daily, the site is not enjoying its finest hour.
‘Trolls’, or people who post abusive and malicious comments in online fora, have been around for as long as the internet, but whether because of the emotion generated by the Olympic Games, or because Twitter is now the forum of choice for excited spectators, it seems we are hearing more from online twits in the last fortnight than we have before.
Take 17-year-old Reece Messer, the teenage troll who used his Twitter account to tell British diver Tom Daley he let his dead father down when he missed out on a medal last week.
Messer was found and questioned by police, after Daley went public about the string of abusive tweets. Messer’s father says his son regularly abuses people on the site, and Twitter should have shut down his account a long time ago. Daley has been commended for speaking out about abuse on Twitter, but he hasn’t been the only Olympian on the receiving end of it.
British swimmer, Rebecca Addington, and teenage weightlifter, Zoe Smith, have also been mocked for their appearance, as they prepared to represent their country. Comedian Frankie Boyle proved that trolls can be high-profile, also, as he joined in the taunts of Addington by saying she had a face like a dolphin. The twits got more than they bargained for, though, when they took Smith on. An avid tweeter, Smith flipped the bird at the haters last week, tweeting: “It’s two fingers up to them, basically. What are you doing with your life? I’ve just competed at the Olympics! Have some of that, trolls!” It only made it sweeter that she sent out her tweet after smashing a world record.
Not all the bigger names on Twitter are as resilient as Smith. Soccer star-turned-Olympic commentator Gary Lineker told British newspapers last week he felt “physically sick” after reading abusive tweets directed at his young son, who has had leukaemia. The tweets were posted by an anonymous user, and Lineker retweeted them, including one which said “Heard ya had Leukaemia, pity ya didn’t die.” Last year, Ryan Tubridy was derided for being thin-skinned when he closed down his twitter account, which had 60,000 followers. At the time, Tubridy, who once famously tweeted, “Twitter gets very unpleasant of a Friday night”, was seen as too sensitive to criticism, but maybe he was just ahead of the curve?
Certainly, other celebrities have since followed in his wake, the latest being Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton, who signed off last week. Her final tweet suggests she left the site due to online criticism. “Turns out I don’t have very thick skin after all, so I am closing my twitter account. Enjoy the games. Signing off, skelts x.”
Quitting Twitter entirely, like Skelton and Tubridy have done, might seem an extreme way of dealing with a robust assessment of how they do their day job, but the venom being directed at Olympians is another matter entirely.
The vitriol they are encountering has led for calls for the site to police itself more effectively, and clamp down harder on trolls, but free speech advocates say there is no need for authorities to get involved.
Those who love Twitter say the online community is self-policing, and trolls can be blocked and reported, but as English TV presenter Kirsty Allsopp, yet another high-profile recipient of abuse on Twitter, recently tweeted to her followers: “Bullying is unacceptable.” Allsopp has been subject to graphic threats of sexual violence on the site, but she refuses to leave.
Instead, she is calling out to her abusers, and enjoying huge support. It’s proof that, just like in the playground, the best way to deal with the bullies on Twitter is to stand up to them.
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