Trolling – a Spectator Sport?

Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish discusses the historical nature of public executions and torture. For Foucault, the spectator plays a key role in the method of punishment: ‘It must mark the victim: it is intended, either by the scar it leaves on the body, or by the spectacle that accompanies it, to brand the victim with infamy’. He describes the method as a form of ritual, a process whereby the criminal is marked not only by the act of torture, but by the lasting persona enforced on them. The crime remains in the mind of the spectator, preventing the victim from being viewed otherwise. Yet Foucault’s use of the term ‘victim’ should be commented on. After all, how often is the prosecuted named so during the trial? The prosecuted becomes the victim of a form of demonisation by the public. Operation Yewtree is a prime example of this. Due to the high profile nature of the Saville Enquiry, it has become a topic of public concern and debate. Potential suspects have been named on social media sites prior to being reported on the news. The tenet of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ seems obsolete in a world where Twitter becomes the jury. Yet while this may be some form of cultural zeitgeist, is it not just a continuation of so-called ‘mob mentality’?

Twitter’s hashtag search function allows users to browse topics of interest, thus gleaning a range of opinions in 140 character nuggets. Similarly, Twitter allows for discussion amongst strangers, creating a form of online community with a level of anonymity. Yet with this anonymity comes those who seek to bait. 

William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating discusses the process of baiting, arguing that it is a collective practice. Hazlitt uses the example of Guy Fawkes to illustrate his point: ‘We burn Guy Fawkes in effigy, and the hooting and buffeting and maltreating that poor tattered figure of rags and straw makes a festival in every village in England once a year’. Fawkes’s treasonous exploits are at the centre of this practice, yet something else is symbolised by this burning. A sense of community is created through a mutual hatred of an individual. ‘Pleasure’ is thus derived through hate because it forms a collective. While Fawkes’s effigy is still burnt annually in many towns and villages, a new scorching is happening online – trolling. Professor Mary Beard recently became the focus of trolls, receiving death and rape threats over Twitter. What began as a series of tweets concerning her appearance, quickly escalated into threats against her wellbeing. A form of sadistic community was created through this method of baiting as more and more users joined the attack.

Hazlitt argues that it is a natural impulse to involve oneself in such an event: ‘a whole town runs to be present at a fire, and the spectator by no means exults to see it extinguished’. Whether you start the fire, or are just a witness, it becomes a spectator sport. In the example of executions, Foucault questions the presence of the public: ‘Not only must people know, they must see with their own eyes […] they must to a certain extent take part in it’. Twitter allows for public debate. But although the site is used by those who seek to victimise individuals, it also gives a platform to those who would previously have gone unheard. If Twitter is the scaffold, we are the voyeurs.

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