Romancing the code: Ashley’s Angels and internet demons

In 2015, a substantial amount of sensitive data was leaked from the Ashley Madison (hereon, AM) website. Over a series of posts, I investigate the affair, sometimes checking what other media outlets have claimed, and at other times providing my own results and analysis. The series looks (at the present time) like this, with instalments going out every Monday:

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O generation of vipers: when Katie courted controversy

Reblogged from Britain in 2016.

A week in the online life of Katie Hopkins: Is falling silent a way of calming a Twitter storm?

Competition in the changing world of mass media has never been higher. With so many channels, papers, magazines, blogs, and stations all vying for our attention, getting a good slice of the ratings has never been so hard. But for those who are not selective about the type of attention they are willing to elicit, there is a shortcut: become a trollumnist – a columnist who trolls.

One figure who has been described as a trollumnist is Katie Hopkins, who rose to fame in 2007 after appearing on The Apprentice. Hopkins regularly writes for the Sun, and joined Twitter (@KTHopkins) in February 2009. Since then, she has tweeted, on average, once per waking hour, every single day for the past six and a half years. In that time, she has broadcast many deeply unpopular opinions, mocked countless critics, and attacked several celebrities.

On Sunday 12 April 2015, around 400 refugees died when their boat capsized off the Libyan coast. Five days later, on Friday 17th, Hopkins’ column in the Sun described migrants as feral humans and cockroaches, likened them to a virus, and advocated the use of gunboats to sink migrant ships.

The article prompted widespread condemnation. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights likened it to language found in pro-genocide propaganda, and, months later, during an investigation into allegations of incitement of racial hatred, Hopkins was questioned under caution about the article by the Metropolitan Police’s Homicide and Major Crime Command. The anger at Hopkins’ column was further inflamed when another migrant boat capsized on 19 April, killing 700 more men, women, and children.

As news of the second boat’s fate spread, Hopkins’ usual stream of tweets abruptly stopped and did not resume until 6am on Friday 24 April, almost five full days later. Why? What happens to someone like Katie Hopkins on Twitter when they air views that inspire such strong feelings?

Using FireAnt, a software developed at the ESRC-funded Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science to analyse just over 150,000 tweets covering Friday 18 to Sunday 26 April, we found three striking themes in the tweets sent directly to her: death, ugliness, and dislike. The first is mainly about the migrants, whose deaths are described not just as drownings, but also as genocide and murder. The second and third are primarily assessments of Hopkins. From the 18th onwards, she receives literally thousands of tweets per day, peaking at over five thousand on the 21st (about one every twenty seconds) telling her that she is disgusting, nasty, repulsive, filthy, hateful and hated, and these are merely the publishable descriptions. Was Hopkins stunned into silence by it? Or was there more to her sudden Twitter holiday?

Interestingly, as Hopkins’ Twitter absence progresses, the avalanche of rage gradually slows. On the one hand, this is partly due to the mayfly lifecycle of online outrages. They explode spectacularly, and then die as a new story grabs the headlines. On the other hand, like tennis, it is rather tedious to play against an opponent who will not hit back, and few people have the stamina to keep firing tweets into an unresponsive abyss day after day.

Counter to common intuition, then, silence is a powerful way of quelling online storms of this nature. And perhaps most intriguing of all, is that whilst Hopkins’ article might have stirred up wrath, and her silence may have calmed it, neither stopped her from gaining just under five hundred followers per day. In other words, the very backlash that most of us would dread guarantees that Hopkins remains a person whose controversial opinions will drag in audiences and clicks. In the evolving world of new media, it can therefore pay substantially to be a troll.