By Amanda Craig
(U.K.) What is it that makes people want to send vitriolic abuse, including death threats, to a total stranger?
I can’t begin to imagine. But this year, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, I do know what it is like to be on the receiving end of such embittered hatefulness.
Why? Because I’d dared to write a piece in this newspaper about my teenage years spent at Bedales, the progressive public school that was embroiled in a scandal earlier this year concerning shoplifting and under-age sex.
As a pupil at the school in the 1970s, I had experienced a level of bullying and abuse that I still find disturbing to think about to this day and which inspired my second novel, written 20 years ago, A Private Place.
Yet when I set down my painful memories of my formative years on paper, I never imagined I’d be setting myself up as a sitting target for a new breed of modern-day bullies, who choose not the school playground, but the internet to target their victims.
‘Cyberbullying’ isn’t confined to children — it is a contemporary menace in which people can be targeted anywhere, at any time. When my email inbox began to fill up with awful messages, my first reaction was one of exasperation, quickly followed by cold contempt.
I was totally unprepared for the slew of virulent messages that, for the next month, pinged into my inbox via both my Twitter account and my public Facebook page. Many of these messages are unpublishable in a national newspaper, but they included threats to my personal safety, disgusting sexual abuse, venomous comments about my looks and personality, a flurry of one-star Amazon reviews of my novels — and several attempts to hack into my Wikipedia entry.
Astonishingly, those behind them were girls and boys of between 15 and 21 years old, many of whom declared themselves to be current or former pupils of Bedales. They defended the school by calling me bitter, greedy, bitchy and, what’s more, claimed that I ‘deserved to be bullied’. Then they said that the school was wonderful, and that bullying didn’t exist there, and that ‘every single one of (the abusive comments that had been posted about me) was understandable and acceptable’.
The poisonous mob mentality these messages displayed actually did far more to show any current or prospective parent the ugly side of a ‘liberal’ education than what I had written. I was told that ‘we know where you live, so watch out’, ‘your [sic] dead, bitch’, ‘die, you ugly c***’ and so on.
‘You are insulting an establishment you show no understanding of, in a way in which you can only expect a [sic] outraged reaction. You have not only insulted our way of life, our home but us as individuals. I feel personally attacked,’ wrote one boy.
A couple of current pupils were moved to express sympathy and to assure me that things had changed, but these, like the nicer kind of Bedalian student of my own time, seemed far and few between.
One posted a more moderate, thoughtful comment about my article — and his peers turned on him: ‘Stop s***ing her d**k Toby, and stick up for the f*****g school. Your [sic]
The abuse was so remarkable that two national newspapers picked it up, and one even wrote a leader page column. Yet when the Head of Bedales, Keith Budge, was approached for comment, his response, as quoted in the Daily Telegraph, was to say his pupils were simply defending their school.
The Old Bedalian magazine, edited by a former member of staff, decided to publish a sneering piece, which included a photograph of me printed upside-down and — a lovely touch — an encomium of the school’s creativity by Kirstie Allsopp.
Nobody in authority has attempted to contact me to apologise, and no pupil, as far as I know, has been reprimanded. Now, I don’t take the ravings of over-excited teenagers seriously. But neither do I think anyone should be allowed to get away with this kind of behaviour — least of all the privileged pupils of a £30,000-a-year school.
For such mindless venom to come from privileged children living in conditions which the majority can only dream of, and attending an institution that prides itself on its liberal outlook would be especially offensive.
Every contemporary school is aware of the life-long emotional and psychological damage that bullying can cause, and the responsible ones, both in the state and private sectors, have strong protocols about dealing with such issues, especially online.
Cyberbullying is worse and more cowardly than playground bullying. Even as an adult, I found the abuse deeply offensive. It was extraordinary that I was being addressed as if I were still the vulnerable, innocent 12-year-old I had been all those years ago. What I had described was so painful that I thought nobody in their right mind could feel anything but shame and compassion — and, more importantly, concern about whether the ills I described were still happening.
Instead, it seemed to provoke the opposite reaction. It was extraordinary — and ludicrous. But that’s the thing about the internet. While it has transformed the way people can communicate, it has also allowed some to say the most unkind things to someone they don’t know, have never met, and wouldn’t dare to confront face-to-face.
Bullies beware: Anonymous messages can be traced back to the location and computer they were sent from (posed by model)
These so-called ‘trolls’, inspired by envy, rage and spite, appear to live in a parallel universe in which they believe they can threaten, stalk, intimidate and libel anyone with impunity.
You don’t have to do something as provocative as write about your unhappy schooldays to set them off. Just being pretty, happy, or good at what you do is enough. Whole families can be affected by the fall-out, if my experience is anything to go by.
‘Why do people keep saying horrible things about you on Facebook just because you were bullied at school?’ my 15-year-old son asked me, bemused. ‘Because they’re total losers,’ replied my 18-year-old daughter. Having been forewarned by their schools about how to handle online abuse, they were far better placed to deal with it than me.
My husband was the most shocked — and angered — at the hate-filled messages I showed him. He was the one who then had sleepless nights — and who became the most worried about our physical safety. I am not easily intimidated, but I was admittedly depressed by this evidence of how little had changed about the mentality of bullies. On the flipside, however, the attempts to undermine me caused something rather wonderful to happen.
A number of distinguished authors, journalists and lawyers — many of whom had, ironically, become friends of mine through Facebook — saw what was being posted on my page and sprang into action, unasked, to defend me with both eloquence and wit.
'For the victim, an abusive Twitter message or email is no different from receiving verbal abuse'
To see the likes of Philip Hensher, Nicholas Lezard, Louisa Young, Chris Priestly and Katy Guest all pouring scorn on these abusive bloggers was rather like the scene at the end of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novel, The Silver Chair, when the bullies who have been terrorising the children at the progressive Experiment House are punished.
Alarmed by this unexpected challenge, the trolls began, one by one, to delete their messages. Today, they are all gone — though I, and several others, took copies of them, in case they feel tempted to strike again.
People who do not have Twitter and Facebook accounts may be rather mystified by all of this. Meanwhile, those who do may wonder why I have dared to risk further online abuse by describing my experience here.
The answer is two-fold. One is that I believe bullying will never stop unless there is a concerted effort from the top to confront it, and that while any school continues to appear to condone its own smug cult that will not happen. Second, if you haven’t experienced bullying, you have no idea what a scar it leaves on the soul. Just because I learnt how to use my rage in creative, positive ways, writing novels, doesn’t mean that it’s not there.
Connecting with readers and writers through the web can be one of the greatest delights of 21st-century life, as Twitter and Facebook host a vast virtual conversation, in which people share views and exchange ideas about everything, from trivial thoughts to breaking news. But more and more bloggers and writers are complaining about the intimidating attacks made on them.
Caroline Farrow, a vicar’s wife and mother-of-three who blogs for the Catholic Voices website, recently revealed she receives at least five sexually threatening emails a day.
One of the least offensive read: ‘You’re gonna scream when you get yours. F*****g slag. Butter wouldn’t f*****g melt, and you’ll cry rape when you get what you’ve asked for. Bitch.’ That anybody can get away with writing in such a horrific manner to another human being beggars belief — but, thankfully, the law is slowly catching up.
The Police Central e-Crime Unit is responsible for investigating malicious communications. For example, a man of 60 has been charged with sending threatening Twitter messages to MP Louise Mensch.
Perhaps the threat of arrest, a criminal record and punishment will help the bullies think twice. For the victim, an abusive Twitter message or email is no different from receiving verbal abuse, or getting a poison-pen letter.
For the bully, though, there is one key difference: although they think the internet affords them anonymity, every message can be traced back to a location and a specific computer. Cyberbullies would do well to remember that before they click the send button.
Amanda Craig’s novel A Private Place (Abacus) is being re-issued as an e-book in February.