The best way of dealing with online trolls? Ignore them – and starve them of oxygen | Stuart Heritage

As Countdown’s human calculator has shown with her Twitter abusers, blocking them – and not engaging – is a better way of dealing with them

If you want to know what sort of world we live in, Rachel Riley has had to block 1,500 people on Twitter. That’s right: Countdown’s human calculator has attracted such a swell of antisemitic hatred that she has been forced to silence enough people to fill Sadler’s Wells.

We know how many people Riley has blocked because she is taking part in a campaign urging people not to publicise the social media abuse they receive. Now, you might argue that going on TV and assigning a hard numerical value to the amount of abuse you get online isn’t necessarily the best way to avoid publicising the amount of abuse you get online. But, hey, Riley’s the numbers whiz, not me.

And anyway, her point holds up. We live in testing times, and we have all been conditioned to be tired and punchy. But lashing out clearly isn’t working. In real life as well as online, it might be time to rediscover the lost art of ignoring dickheads.

Riley has been working with the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, which is doing a pretty terrific job of pointing out the futility of engaging with trolls. Its report points out that hate groups deliberately seek out engagement as a way of boosting their own profiles. And it works. When David Lammy retweeted some racial abuse he had received, for example, the abuser’s account grew in popularity by 14%. A nice quiet block – which would have stopped the abuser tweeting messages to Lammy – would have starved it of oxygen.

Russell Crowe understands the appeal of a block. A few years ago, during an interview with the Guardian, he even suggested that Twitter should make the act of blocking someone more enjoyable, arguing: “When you push ‘Block’, there should be like a nuclear explosion, and that person’s photograph is shattered to a million fucking pieces, so you go: ‘Yeah, see ya mate.’ BOOM.”

Personally, I’ve only blocked 10% of the people that Riley has, and I’m arguably a much worse person than she is. But this is only because I believe a block to be too confrontational. Blockees have a habit of wearing their blocked status as a badge of honour. Trust me, I know. A few years ago, I realised that I had been blocked by Mick Hucknall. I don’t know why. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything particularly critical about him, plus I’m just reaching the point of soft-bellied, weekend-trips-to-Homebase middle age where I can start to sort of see the point of Simply Red. But nevertheless, he blocked me. And it was brilliant. Mick Hucknall blocked me. Me! Clearly, I was special. Then he unblocked me, and I was back to being one of you plebs again. It was awful.

Instead, I prefer the mute option, which prevents you from seeing most of someone’s tweets, but without them knowing it. I’ve muted hundreds and hundreds of people on Twitter. I’ve muted trolls. I’ve muted public figures. I’ve muted people who just happened to ambiently annoy me once. I’ve muted colleagues. I’ve muted friends whose online personas try too hard. And it’s great, because they don’t even know they have been muted, the poor idiots. They are all screaming away like their lives still depend on it, but nobody can hear them. If blocking is like a nuclear bomb, then muting is like slowly poisoning someone’s food. I cannot recommend it enough.

But of course this is what we all should do. It’s what we do in real life. When a swaggering, lagered-up moron gets on your train and starts keening around for a fight, you quietly move carriages. If a shopkeeper is weirdly aggressive to you, you visit a different shop. If a family member is constantly critical of your every decision, you pack your things and move to a different country. We’ve all done that, right? Just me?

Confrontation is wildly overrated in my book. We’re all getting older and our energy is limited; why waste it on people who just want a reaction?


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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