Wed, 24 July 2024

On the frontline against armies of trolls

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from Mark Porter (Austrian Section) in Cannes. June 23, 2021

In Aleppo, dressed for the frontline, a place that has proved less scary than England’s leafy suburbia inhabited by trolls.

As chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Times Christina Lamb has dodged bullets and bombs, fled kidnap attempts, and confronted Jihadists. And yet in a career that has seen her win 15 major awards, including the Prix Bayeux-Calvados for war correspondents, the most scary experience was at the hands of Internet trolls following the recent funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Her offence? With a fast-approaching deadline and 1,500 words to file, she wrote: “Prince Philip was the longest-serving royal consort in British history — an often crotchety figure, offending people with gaffes about slitty eyes, even if secretly we rather enjoyed them.” Her intention was evidently to contrast the dashing younger duke with the old man who had become a comical national treasure.  

This may not have been the most polished prose La  Lamb ever wrote (a fire alarm at her hotel ate up half of her deadline time) but it is clear that they refer to the duke’s quirky humour and not to her own views of the Chinese population. Nor do they amount to an endorsement of racism. How?

Certainly, the sub-editors understood her meaning, as did her editor.

“The next day, I had arranged to take my mum for lunch out, a rare break from caring for my disabled father. On the way, I noticed some activity on Twitter, accusing me of being racist. I was confused,” wrote La Lamb in last weekend’s paper.

“I have always felt it better not to engage as it just fuels the mob, so I tried to ignore it. Only later, after I had dropped Mum back home, did I realise how many had read the sentence in a different way to what I intended…I was mortified.”

Ms Lamb has experience of online abuse, whether it be from jihadists who hate western women, or Pakistani hardliners because of her association with the activist Malala Yousafzai, whose autobiography she worked on. “This was different. People apparently thought it was a perfectly reasonable response to abuse me, my husband and son. The jihadists were polite by comparison,” she wrote.

Wit: Prince Philip at 99

Her most recent tweet had been a photo of two glasses on a balcony overlooking the Thames. She and her husband were celebrating the pubs reopening, which coincided with his birthday.

“That was seized on over and over by people accusing me of getting drunk by the river in Windsor while the funeral was on and “raising a glass to Phil the Greek at the Racist Arms”. That the post was from London three days earlier was apparently irrelevant. To them, as they told me, I was a “f***ing big-nosed racist wine-drinking c***”.

Then there were the death threats: “Don’t walk around if I see you or your family I’ll knock you out and so ur family,” said dubstepbystep on my Instagram. Telling me I should be killed was the least of it.”

“I feel sorry for your children. You f***ing racist old hag, washed up trowel-faced old bitch,” wrote Maddie Rainer.
Howard Wong, who runs an ice-cream company called Little Moons, thought it perfectly acceptable to track down her husband’s account and post abuse about his “racist wife”.

Her Wikipedia page was repeatedly hacked, changing her description from bestselling author to “racist bigot”. One man on social media offered tips on how to start a concerted campaign against her.

Many of her abusers had only a handful of followers or were clearly bots. Disturbingly many were women. Instagram was even worse than Twitter.

“Over my 33-year career I have taken on despots and dictators; now my nemesis was a fashion blogger called Susie Bubble, who runs a bubble-tea café in Stoke Newington, north London.”

La Bubble launched a petition demanding an apology from Ms Lamb and The Sunday Times — even though the paper published an apology as soon as it could, and she had apologised to anyone who wrote to her directly.

“There was no excuse for what I had written, I told people over and over again. At a speaking event the Tuesday after the funeral, I apologised at length. I posted the apology on my public Facebook page.”

Bubbles’ organisation, the ESEA (East and Southeast Asia) Sisters, published all her social media handles. They contacted every organisation she had ever worked with — charities where she was a board member,  publishers of her books, American think tanks she is affiliated with, places where she was due to speak. They posted malicious reviews on Amazon. They even contacted her college at Oxford demanding she be stripped of her honorary fellowship.

The actress Gemma Chan, whose film Crazy Rich Asians she had enjoyed, demanded that people sign the petition. This took it across the Atlantic where many of her followers seemed to think that it was she herself who coined the term “slitty eyes”.

“The New York Public Library, where I was shortlisted for the Bernstein award for excellence in journalism, decided not to award the prize. Their letter to my publisher ended: “The award honours the noble profession of journalism, and is a reflection on The New York Public Library and its values. As such, we need to hold the candidates to the highest possible standards.

“My detractors will say I am trying to present myself as a victim. But I have spent my career highlighting abuse and just because I am a target, it would be pathetic to stop now. I have a platform and believe it’s right to speak out.

“I am a woman in her mid-fifties with lots of support from family, friends, and employers, and a well-established career. But what about teenage girls, perhaps just starting out in a new job, insecure about themselves? No wonder some are driven to self-harm or suicide.

“Yes, I am sorry for what I wrote, I have learnt from this and will read my copy more closely in future. But if I get something wrong, does it mean I am a racist?”

Edward Steen, Sec-Gen, comments: It is inexcusable that this usually anonymous army of malevolent types with so much time on their hands is still rarely winkled out and arrested. Barack Obama as US President had to endure hundreds of these every day, frequently as death threats. But almost more shocking is the sheer cowardice of the great and good, in this case the New York Public Library.

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