Film and drama

The funny, funny, world of celebrity Twitter trolls

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With the debate about internet trolling raging across Australia, Neil Kennedy focuses on a much less often commented on form of bullying — the co-ordinated, safety-in-numbers type presided over by powerful celebrities.

(Note: this piece caused something of a sensation when first published for a UK audience on September 5 and has been updated and adapted here specifically for Independent Australia by the author.)

Celebrity comic online bullies: Simon Pegg, Ricky Gervais, and Noel Fielding.

THE BELOW tweet was made - and quickly deleted - by popular comedian Ricky Gervais just as I was finishing proof-reading this piece.

Whether or not it's in reference to the current MissSpidey controversy (which I'll cover below) I don't know. It certainly strikes me as being insensitive, unfunny and inappropriate, though.

With the current debate about internet trolling raging across Australia, I wanted to focus on a form of bullying which is much less often commented on. I'll detail occurrences of co-ordinated, safety-in-numbers bullying which were presided over by three different celebrities: Simon Pegg, Ricky Gervais and Noel Fielding. They've used their combined follower count of just under 6 million to bully people - Gervais in particular does so repeatedly, and with unrestrained glee - and I'm sick of the fact that they're not called to account for it.

You have heard plenty about "trolls and haters" in the wider media, but very little about celebrities endorsing and directing this behaviour. I've included extensive source material so you can make up your own mind about these witch-hunts, and the sometimes sly way they are tacitly endorsed through selective retweeting.

"Teach the horrible snob a lesson"

Comedy can be vicious

It often seeks to illuminate a ridiculous state of affairs through mockery, and I find this to be an effective way of opening people up to new ways of thinking. Laughter makes us drop our guard, and previously entrenched positions can end up deserted as a result. Comedy can also be about control, and approval. Think of stand-up comics, who attempt to cajole large groups of strangers into laughing. Stand-up comedy often becomes adversarial, as pissed-up punters attempt to heckle the on-stage comic, hoping to stump him and secure the limelight, however fleetingly, for themselves. Heckling is, for better or worse, part and parcel of the world of stand-up comedy.

Whether comedians like it or not, critics are also an integral part of comedy, and of art in a wider sense. Critics – when they actually know their stuff, have a passion for the art-form they're commenting on, and aren't Ben Pobjie – can place art in a wider context for the reader.

Sadly, some comedians can't take criticism on the chin, and while it's obviously disheartening to see a negative reaction to something you've poured your heart and soul into, not everyone is going to like it. Nor should they — the best art is divisive, and seeks to challenge an audience.

It's still surprising, however, to note just how thin-skinned some comedians actually are. I'd argue that this is perhaps true of most artists — I like to believe it's their sensitivity that affords them insights the rest of us couldn't possibly hope to make.

The internet, and the prominence of social networking in recent years, has awakened the critic in us all. Twitter seems to be perpetually fuelled by "live-tweeting", where people forego the act of actually fully immersing themselves in whatever they're experiencing, so they can make snarky real-time comments about Charlie Brooker's hairstyle. It's an addictive process, and one which I try to refrain from, as it seems akin to going to a live event, then missing most of it because you're focussed on trying to record it for later. "If you're on your phone, you are not where you are", as Fran Lebowitz puts it.

A more unpleasant side-effect of the instantaneous nature of internet communication is that many people feel they can take their disgruntlement directly to the source. Being a public figure on the internet means having to deal with a barrage of abuse. It's unpleasant and unnecessary, but people quickly become emboldened by the deindividuation that occurs when their identities are withheld, given that there's no chance of getting a punch in the hooter. One of Britain's most respected stand-ups is Stewart Lee, and his current show, Carpet Remnant World, involves a whittled down list of the most frothingly insane online critiques he could find on internet messageboards and social networking sites. The "40,000 words of hate" can be viewed on his website. They frequently seem unhinged, over-the-top and staggering in their lack of compassion and humanity - but such is the way with internet communication. People vying for attention on a crowded medium quickly escalate the ferocity of their vitriol so their opinions stand out.

These comments, though, weren't addressed directly to Stewart Lee - nor could they be, as the mumbling Midlands luddite famously eschews social networking. He had to go and seek out each one, ultimately laughing them off, and using the concentrated outpouring of bile in a creative way.

Noel Fielding - who you may know from The Mighty Boosh, and who is currently touring Australia with his cuddly and contrived animal whimsy — has a history of dealing with internet criticism in a far less gracious manner. Back in April, Waldemar Januszczak, art critic for The Sunday Times, took exception to Fielding being chosen to interview Damien Hirst for a TV programme. His tweets make a case for this being emblematic of a dumbing down of arts programming, and there seems to be a certain amount of snobbery towards the art-form of comedy:
"Aren't there enough comedy shows on TV already without Channel 4 sending Noel Fielding to review Damien Hirst?"

Januszczak made a handful of these comments, but at no point contacted Fielding directly — he was doing the polite thing of effectively talking about someone behind their back. Fielding, however, heard about the comments – or more likely found them for himself by doing a vanity search on his name, given that he is Noel Fielding – and decided, like Januszczak, not to make direct contact. Instead he engaged in a form of safety-in-numbers bullying that cast fans and followers in the guise of a personal army, mobilised to defend his fragile ego.

"Almost feel sorry for him. Almost."

This isn't a new phenomenon, and I've previously written about Ricky Gervais' penchant for the same sort of coordinated bullying. Similarly thin-skinned, Gervais, while still new to the social networking site, quickly found that he could point his fans to negative reviews, and then pat these obedient, bile-spitting dogs on the head afterwards for fighting his battles. Some of you, I know, will say 'but he never actually asked them to do anything', and you'll say the same thing when we get back to what Noel Fielding has been up to lately, towards the end of this blog. You have to decide what the reasons are for Gervais and Fielding posting these things – whether they know what the result will be – and then think about the approval explicitly given out to those who support them afterwards.

Anyway, it's all utterly repellent. Twitter has closed the gap between fans and the object of their fandom, changing the dynamic completely. Artists now make themselves available to their fan-base, and there's no doubt that many of them simply enjoy the interaction for what it is and are addicted to the site itself — but the bottom line is the bottom line. Artists can now more effectively market themselves, turning fans into compliant street-teamers. Plus, if they have a huge userbase, like [redacted], they can make a lot of money by "enthusiastically" endorsing products.

Certain types of fans will go out of their way to garner the attention of their idols on Twitter. It's always been one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the site, for me, as I prefer there to be an air of mystery surrounding artists and celebrities. Thinking you're on friendly terms with an artist is also frequently harmful to a direct and unfettered analysis of their art. Try typing "can I have an RT" into Twitter's search engine, to observe the never-ending desperation for celebrity affirmation.

Comedians like Noel Fielding, Ricky Gervais and Doug Stanhope prey on this shallow neediness in calculating, unpleasant and cynical ways. Fielding has deleted his twitter profile in the wake of the controversy sparked by my original blog, but until then, he had 340,000 followers, many of whom where very rabid and loyal teenagers and, as mentioned, he took great delight in sending them to attack Januszczak. Let's have a look at that — read from the bottom up:

Fielding letting loose his pretties

What's particularly sinister about the way in which he went about it, is that he made it all seem like a jolly rum old cuddly bit of fun, rather than what it was — a co-ordinated bullying campaign. It's absolutely unacceptable for comedians to hide behind their followers in this manner — Fielding is endorsing and legitimising saftey-in-numbers bullying and, frankly, there's more than enough of that on the net as it is. Around the time this happened, a BBC programme, hosted by Richard Bacon, did an excellent job in exploring the abusive world of internet bullying, but it's important to stress that celebrities aren't always the targets — sometimes they're the ringmasters.

You'd be forgiven for not realising that fact, because very few people bother to comment on it. If you're a fan of The IT Crowd, then you may follow the creator, Twitter policeman Graham Linehan. And if you follow Twitter policeman Graham Linehan, you will doubtless have read endless tweets, tumblrs and blogs from him, banging on and on and on about how much abuse celebrities have to take as a by-product of using the site. I sympathise with them — producing art for public consumption shouldn't necessitate having people lining up to tell you, with often quite abusive and salty language, just how irredeemably awful it and you are. We're still negotiating new ways of communicating, on this emergent platform, and many, many people simply and thoughtlessly figure it follows that if you can give your opinion directly to someone involved, then you should. For goodness sake, though, try and be polite and constructive about it. If you want to be rude, be civil, and do it behind their back. If they find it via a vanity search, they have only themselves to blame.

There is a side-issue here, it should be pointed out, where it now seems that many celebrities – like aforementioned Twitter policeman Graham Linehan – simply place themselves above any kind of criticism. This accounts for the devaluing of the term "troll" in the wider media — the phrase was originally coined to refer to people who post inflammatory messages in order to sidetrack discussion and generate negative attention. Now, it frequently seems to mean "anyone with the chutzpah to publicly disagree with a celebrity or media figure." Yes, that's a video where journalist Guy Walters bemoans the lack of quality debate online, yet can clearly be seen engaging in the same level of discourse in his Telegraph blog.

He finds it annoying that his blog got him called "an aggrandising pillock", yet we can see that it is in response to him calling Assange a "big, self-aggrandising pillock". Then he says that he gets called a moron, before calling "trolls" a "tide of morons." Above the line, you're a journalist — below the line, you're a troll or hater. That's largely how it is now, often unfairly so.

Finally, he says that people on the internet are nasty primarily because they're anonymous, and then he details how – thanks to social networking itself – we're less anonymous than ever before. To the extent that he's able to get one of his critics on the phone. Charlotte Dawson is similarly advocating stripping what remaining anonymity we have left on the internet – that which hasn't already been taken away by Google and Facebook, so they can more effectively market products at us – and yet, she was also able to track down one of her trolls.

I really do despise the reckless abandon with which the terms "trolls" and "haters" are thrown about today. This is dehumanising language that is far too often used to discredit those with a robust and contrary opinion, and it legitimises the sort of disproportionate response we're going to be looking at in this article.

Back to the clip, and there really are strong parallels to draw between it, and what's happening with Australia's Daily Telegraph. People are understandably outraged at the hypocritical moralising of a rabid, vituperative tabloid. Similarly, Robbie Farah – the target of nasty, tasteless jokes about his mother, who died of pancreatic cancer in June – has been caught making a joke about giving a noose for a birthday present to the very Prime Minister he now wants to protect him from offensive statements!

The tweets Farah was sent were, of course, utterly disgusting, and no-one should have to be subjected to further hurt during the already horrendous process of grieving for a parent, but the debates now ranging about the limits of freedom of speech miss the point of the concept. Freedom of speech isn't there for the stuff we agree with, it's there for all the bits that make us uncomfortable. It's there for the offensive jokes we are the target of, as well as the ones we make ourselves, Robbie.

"Can y'all flame this dick-twitch."

Let's recap. We have identified what we all know, and take for granted on the internet — that people can be hateful, particularly from the safety of a keyboard. We're more concerned in this blog, though, about that hatred being orchestrated and focused by celebrities. Let's continue to look at that with a few more examples — one of which, I warn you, gets pretty fucking dark.

My opinion is that any comedian worth their salt should be able to defend themselves, using wit and words. It's surely a base requirement for a professional comedian. Some, though, can't be bothered, nor do they need to be, given that there are many fans desperate for affirmation and attention who can be easily shepherded. Simon Pegg – good old cuddly Simon "that bloke from Spaced" Pegg – has a bit of history with this. A while back, a user tweeted the following:
“For some reason @simonpegg really really annoys me, hot fuzz is good though! He's on my list, and it ain't a good list! #annoying.”

Rude, unpleasant, and unnecessary; I think we'd all agree on that. Imagine getting masses of messages of that ilk every day. The question is, though, if the response is proportionate:

Pegg bullying

Boom. This silly, rude bastard (with 300 followers and no influence) has now been brought to the attention of over 2 million Simon Pegg fans, who have been explicitly instructed to "flame" him. Can anyone explain to me why this isn't seen as being against the terms of service of Twitter, and why people like Pegg aren't suspended for aggressive, co-ordinated bullying? One possible reason is that celebrities – and people's willingness to follow them – made Twitter what it is today. Remember when it was just that thing Stephen Fry talked about all the time, always with a heavy-handed reference to how many people were currently following him? The endorsement of early-adopter celebrities like Fry in particular was hugely important in breaking Twitter in Britain, and abroad. Why would Twitter risk alienating high-profile members of the media, when they're part of the life-blood coursing through its veins?

To Simon Pegg's credit, he apologised profusely for this the next day, and has since tried to conduct himself in a much more responsible manner on the service. It's worth pointing out that, if you are angry at something, a Twitter account is eventually going to lead to it getting a wider audience. It's inevitable. Imagine having to write a blog about whatever was really pissing you off — you'd have the whole process of booting up your computer, firing up the browser, and then thunderously typing out your vitriol as a dense wall of text. And you'd have to sustain that anger throughout the whole process — most of us, hopefully, would calm down, and give up before we ever pressed "submit." Twitter is different, though — you can lift up your smartphone, hammer out 140 characters of fury, and tweet it to your followers, all within a minute. This is a social network that is perfectly positioned to capture emotive and instantaneous outbursts.

The interesting thing is that – when you point out instances of bullying such as the one carried out by Simon Pegg – there's no shortage of fans who will excuse the celebrity of any wrongdoing whatsoever. "They started it by being rude to the celebrity!" — well, I'm sorry, but this isn't the playground, and I expect people in the public eye to have the dignity and decorum to be able to, ultimately, ignore such things. They can block the user, or they can remonstrate with them on a personal level — although even this is fraught with frequent repercussions, as we will see...

"How you liking all this attention?"

I've already touched on Ricky Gervais in this blog and his past penchant for directing his followers to negative articles, ensuring the comments get flooded with positive praise. Let's bring things screaming up-to-date and see how his usage of the medium has changed in the interim.

On Sunday the 3rd of September, Gervais was – as you may have come to expect from even a casual glance at his oeuvre – engaging in some good old bullying, and in humour that mocks those of a lower social status than his own. He started out with a volley of t-shirt slogans that "chav parents" could wear:
"their tattoos hide the bruises"; "I love the pit bull more than these scruffy little divs"; "Yes. All different fathers"; "I had these kids to get a council house"; "I let them do what they want as they'll all be in jail soon".

And so on.

Then, when a follower points out that it's perhaps uncharitable and unpleasant for a multi-millionaire to mock people living in poverty, particularly in the midst of a double-dip recession, Gervais gets slowly and increasingly indignant. He has a pop at a few people, then briefly checks that his followers enjoy watching him shame others. Yee hah, we're gonna watch us some bullying, kids!

Incidentally, that tweet shows a common excuse used by Gervais and others — people who criticise tweets are told simply to unfollow, meaning that they have no right to subscribe to something and then moan about the contents. Personally, I think that's nonsense, but I'm always strongly in favour in debate. It's worth pointing out, though, that this argument completely ignores the whole viral nature of the way tweets are actually spread. You don't have to be following Ricky Gervais to see this kind of thing being retweeted into your timeline.

Anyway, Gervais – clearly furious at being challenged over his right-wing, punching-down, Richard-Littlejohn-meets-Jim-Davidson style of humour – then embarks on a "div hunt", also known as "#gorpcull2012." Again, read this screen-shot from the bottom up:

You feel the pain

Here's another thing that has to be pointed out about Twitter — when you're a celebrity, you can cause an awful lot of abuse for people simply by tweeting or retweeting them into your timeline. You don't even have to explicitly ask your followers to attack them, like Simon Pegg did, all you have to do is communicate your displeasure, and slyly sit back and watch the hatred. Gervais did this multiple times with @guyjp, ensuring that his 3 million followers would tear him to shreds. Each time he did so, he also selectively quoted what @guyjp was saying, in order to paint him in a more negative light. Eventually, the guy was so besieged by idiotic, abusive fans that he ended up deleting his account. Which Ricky Gervais – who constantly swans about like he's bloody Gandhi, repeatedly telling us that "You must never concern yourself with your critics... the best revenge is living well" – gloats about:

What a turd

Note that, like a true coward, Ricky Gervais deletes most of his incriminating tweets — some, like this one above, stay online for little over a minute. This doesn't stop them being archived on sites like Cook'd and Bomb'd or Celeb Tweets, though.

Again, you have to wonder why someone like Gervais is allowed to get away with this behaviour on Twitter. I'm not, incidentally, interested in excusing the comments of @guyjp – for starters, we now can't see the original tweets or context as his account has been deleted – I'm just pointing out the tsunami of abuse that is being wilfully and purposefully summoned by people like Ricky Gervais. Repeatedly so. Gervais clearly enjoys seeing others suffer and frames it as a sort of justice, yet it's clearly one that's disproportionate because of the asymmetrical powerbases. If a toddler says something nasty to you, you don't pick it up and fling it through the nearest plate glass window.

A few vocal celebs are forever telling us about the amount of abuse they have to take, but they need to realise that 'shaming' the trolls in this manner is counter-productive. For starters – and Charlotte Dawson really needs to learn this – by retweeting abuse she isn't shaming trolls, she's feeding them — she's giving them the exposure and negative attention they desire, which in turn causes more and more trolls to target her, knowing they'll get a bite. He knows, sadly, where that led to. However, the retweeting of anything that isn't remotely positive can also have devastating effects for those being retweeted...

"It's about time we re named Twitter Cunt Platform ! whose with me ?"

Let's segue into the final chapter of this blog. The day after Gervais succeeded in using his followers to bully someone right off Twitter, he replied to a tweet by Noel Fielding which read
"Wow people are mean to me. Then my followers are mean to them. Then everyone starts shouting bully x

"Welcome to my world."

We can see, again, how the likes of Fielding and Gervais deliberately engage in orchestrated bullying, and then completely wash their hands of all responsibility. So let's look at what Fielding was talking about.

Someone who Noel Fielding was evidently following, or who got retweeted into his timeline, made a comment about:
"America being the greatest country on earth."

Fielding laughs at this, and takes the piss — he does so directly to the woman, meaning his response would only be seen by people who follow both of them. Despite this, his reply gets 14 retweets and 32 favorites — this proves what we already know: that many of his fans scroll through his timeline reading every tweet, rather than just the ones he sends out for mass consumption. This is common on Twitter, particularly with high-profile accounts.

So far, Fielding hasn't done anything wrong. However, then he does begin to draw public attention to his argument by ridiculing the woman a couple of times, making it clear to people who aren't already scouring his complete timeline, that there's a bit of drama to be had if they go and do so. The woman in question is then subjected to a barrage of "angry Brits" and ends up deleting the tweet in question.

What happens next is predictable — Fielding is challenged on his use of the word "retarded" by someone with a personal interest in making people aware of how their language can hurt others. It's impossible to see the original message "MissSpidey" sent in full, now, but having seen it at the time, I don't remember it being particularly abusive, although it certainly wasn't pleasant, either. In fact, she sent two tweets in total to Fielding, the first one calling him "a moron" for using the word "retarded", and the second one hashtagging him with "#TheMightyDouche" and referring to him as an "unfunny amateur comedian", after he responded to her challenge by calling her "a dumb fuck." Fielding goes nuts over the whole thing, tweeting her with abuse about her "big nose", and then explicitly draws his followers attention to the saga by retweeting people who'd already caught on to the drama. You can see, also, Fielding referring to "Spidey" and himself not getting on, all of which is repeatedly drawing the attention of his followers to the argument. Once again, bottom to top:

Letting the FieldMice know.

Let me just say, at this point, that one of the people who deals with this kind of thing with the most class is Charlie Brooker. If someone is trying to bait him into an argument – and let's take it as granted that some people are dying to get retweeted by a celebrity, so they can get tons of negative attention from their followers – Brooker will sometimes retweet their comment while simultaneously redacting their username! This allows him to use the vitriol for comedy purposes, yet simultaneously spares the person from getting a savaging at the hands of territorial fans.

Back to Fielding, and he's now in a narcissistic rage over the whole affair, continuing to repeatedly tweet about MissSpidey, advocating a namechange from "Twitter" to "Cunt Platform" and talking about how he's a "horrible boy who likes to pull the legs off spiders." A fairly lame attempt at contrition is made, before he RT's a supportive fan, then immediately goes back into "fuck 'em" mode. Then we get a spot of victim blaming for good measure before, finally, Fielding thanks his followers for the support.

The support was, as you can see from what he chose to retweet, abusive and insulting towards MissSpidey. She was repeatedly opened up to the hostility of 340,000 followers, many of whom are young girls who worship Fielding and his contrived, try-hard, drippy surrealism. Fielding personally set the tone early on to one of personal abuse, using MissSpidey's avatar picture to make unflattering remarks about her appearance. This thread was picked up by his followers, but they went further. Much further.

MissSpidey was swamped by hundreds of mentions, from hundreds of users. These tweets, as I've said, mocked her physical appearance as being "old" and "ugly" — in reality, she is neither. Then it took a more sinister turn, and MissSpidey found that her address had been tracked down via her personal blog and was being published by the "FieldMice", who were also threatening violence. Then she started to receive death threats — Noel Fielding was, as you'd expect, copied in on much of this by the fans seeking his approval, so presumably knew what was going on. MissSpidey tried to counter the avalanche of hostility by using the official mechanisms in place for doing so: she started to block and report the users, eventually ending up suspended from Twitter for "aggressive blocking."

I know, isn't it?

MissSpidey suffers from Cyclothymic disorder. Twitter was a vital support network for her. With that suddenly taken away – through no fault of her own – and with a continuing barrage of hateful, hurtful messages being continually delivered to her, MissSpidey lost hope. She tried to end her own life.

Let me reassure you that MissSpidey was unsuccessful in her attempt, thankfully. She is recovering, and I've spoken to her at length to get the facts about this story, and in order to ascertain what should and shouldn't be included.

The Sun, Rupert Murdoch's flagship British tabloid, picked up on the whole affair, and began running it in the showbiz section of its website. Fielding's fans were livid, and staged a campaign to try and get it removed, so incensed where they, in particular, by the naming of a 14 year-old fan. The article was eventually removed, but presumably only because MissSpidey's friend explained to the newspaper that she had tried to commit suicide and, seeing this just as she was getting out of hospital, would risk making matters worse. The Sun, in an uncharacteristic display of concern for the welfare of others, pulled the article. Fielding continued to be fairly unrepentant about the whole thing denying that he'd asked his followers to bully anyone, yet missing that he'd clearly endorsed and tacitly encouraged it, before finally thanking his fans for the support. And, in a cloud of shit, cuddly, childish giggling and twee whimsy, the 39 year-old bully flounced off, doubtless never to be seen again... until something else needs a concentrated marketing push.

Clearly, we had quite extreme circumstances here — a perfect storm that resulted in matters escalating into a very unfortunate incident, one that could have easily been so much worse. It would be unfair and unreasonable to put much of the blame on the eye-shadowed and empty head of Noel Fielding – suicide is a personal choice, after all – but I also don't think he's entirely not responsible. If, as we're constantly told by high-profile users like Twitter policeman Graham Linehan that we should all aspire to being nice to others on social networking, isn't it time that some of the celebrities were asked to behave in the same way? Isn't it time they realised how ridiculous some of the behaviour of their fans can be, and stopped supporting and utilising it for their own fragile egos? Let me say it again: How many times have you heard about the sort of occurrences I've detailed in this blog? I'm willing to bet it's considerably less than you've heard the media commenting on "haters" and "trolls", and it's time people with large, rabid fan-bases started to take responsibility for their words, and for their actions — as well as realising the effect their influence can easily have on those who hang on their every tweet.

What can you do to stop this kind of thing happening again? Perhaps it might be worth reporting the next celebrity you see acting in this manner.

If you enjoy Comedy Chat, you can follow me on Twitter, check out the podcast, and you can also Like this place on Facebook. I would be grateful for any or all of the above. Visit the CaB forums for regular high-quality comedy discussion and analysis

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