Was Brenda Leyland really a troll?

Reblogged from The Guardian.

When three-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared from her hotel bedroom in Praia da Luz seven years ago, her parents could not have envisioned that, on top of the horror of their child’s disappearance, they might be faced with an unremitting barrage of online abuse, including threats of violence, murder and abduction of their other children.

Perhaps in hindsight it might seem obvious. Every major case – Princess Diana’s death, 9/11, even the birth of President Obama – seems to have its contingent of those who believe that a conspiracy of silence has descended on the police and the media, and that people high up are actively engaged in a whitewash so that the real facts never emerge. Those individuals spend hours of their time campaigning to have the “truth” recognised.

One of those individuals was Brenda Leyland. A well-spoken, middle-class, 63-year-old mother of two, who lived in a picturesque village. Leyland regularly took to Twitter to draw attention to what she felt was an appalling miscarriage of justice. Last week, she found herself revealed to the nation by a television news team who exposed her as a “troll”. But was she really a troll?

The first problem is the use of the word. It has become a catch-all term for everything from minor disagreements through to annoying incivility through to criminal behaviour such as death threats. When we think of trolls, the stereotype is of angry, unemployed, disenfranchised young men who exist in a miserable, hermit-like darkness that is void of compassion or loving relationships – young men like John Nimmo, for instance, who was jailed for sending abusive messages to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez. We assume stupidity, alcohol abuse, and social issues. We like to think that they must be so obviously damaged that we would spot them in the street.

However, when we look at cases that have resulted in convictions, the stereotype quickly fails: Peter Nunn was a 33-year-old father; Isabella Sorley was a 23-year-old university graduate; Frank Zimmerman was 60. Even if we could create a troll stereotype from these cases, about the only common theme is that those who get caught are likely to be less than savvy about keeping themselves unfindable online.

Alternatively, they may be so impassioned about a “cause” that they cannot see how their behaviour has escalated out of control. Both convictions and the data show that stereotypes mislead us dangerously because they encourage us to focus only on those who fit the bill, when in reality, the genteel elderly man who moved to let you sit next to him on the train could be sending vile rape threats to his employer via his smartphone. Those who troll can be any age, any gender, anyone at all, and so it begins to look as though the label would fit Leyland too.

The second problem is that the word “troll” has become shorthand for describing any behaviour online that may cause offence. It conjures up strong feelings of repulsion and disgust, and doubtless some watching a bewildered Leyland trying to escape the TV news team last week will have felt a grim satisfaction, and thought to themselves: “She shouldn’t dish out what she can’t take.”

But what was she actually dishing out? Looking over the 5,000-plus tweets from her @sweepyface account, there is clearly a fixation – even an unsettling obsession with the McCanns. She describes them as neglectful parents, objects to their ongoing media appearances, and complains that they are profiting from their daughter’s disappearance. And when people challenge her, she calls them unpleasant names, disputes their evidence and blocks them. In short, her conduct would aggravate some and deeply offend others – but much the same could be said of select comedians, journalists and celebrities who can reach millions. Leyland’s account had a mere 182 followers by the time it suddenly vanished. The crucial question is: did she incite others to harm the McCanns? Or threaten to abduct the McCanns’ other children? Or pose any clear menace?

On Twitter at least it doesn’t seem so. She regularly tweeted the Metropolitan police and Crimewatch, demanding they do more. She would highlight what she felt were untruths in the stories of major press outlets such as the Daily Mail. She railed at media outlets such as LBC for not airing what she felt was the other side of the story. And at the same time, she ensconced herself within a small network of other Twitter users who supported her, agreed with her, and perhaps gave her a sense of identity and importance as a figurehead campaigning for what she believed was justice for Madeleine.

Ultimately, individuals who troll or become obsessed with conspiracy theories can be driven by many factors – boredom, loneliness, a need for validation – and we cannot discount the possibility of mental health problems. At times, their behaviour may border on loathsome, but a news team with a high-profile journalist at the helm is not the way to bring about justice.