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Shhhh. What did the Twitter Silence achieve?

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Today I learned an inquest has been opened into the death of a young girl, bullied to suicide by users of social media. This dreadful story adds a terrible darkness to the storm surrounding the abusive use of the internet. And, as happened with 'spam', a common word now bears a shameful new definition - 'trolls'.

I'm actually rather cautious about this term. Although I understand the digital world has a tendency to create its own slang, I do have some concerns that its use shaves some of the sharp edges off an activity which is simply disgraceful, and occasionally criminal, behaviour. At least, I suppose, we now have a label for the pathetic losers who indulge in this online thuggery.

Thankfully I have never been on the receiving end of trolling (probably because I am male and the abusive no-hopers like to victimise women), so I'm not sure exactly when all this began. It's clear, however, that the rise and rise of Facebook and Twitter has brought the scum to the surface and a major problem has developed.

The esteemed historian Mary Beard has appeared on BBC TV quite frequently in the last year - bringing us wonderfully intriguing documentaries, including an unrivalled programme on the ancient Greeks. But her intellect has upset the bullies. Beginning by, ridiculously, criticising her appearance, the attacks reached a terrifying pitch last weekend when she was told a bomb had been planted at her home (a hoax, fortunately).  
Earlier this year, feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez kicked off an imaginative campaign to prevent the only woman to appear on British bank notes - Elizabeth Fry - from being usurped by a bloke. She has succeeded too. Instead of Winston Churchill, Fry will be replaced by Jane Austen. This too has enraged the tiny-minded pondlife. A barrage of cruelly twisted messages and outrageously violent threats followed Caroline's victory. Just to be clear, these postings included references to rape and murder.

Most of these unwanted and unwarranted communications were sent via Twitter.

As any decent, intelligent human being would accept, 'trolling' isn't funny or entertaining. It is vile, harmful and in most cases, illegal. However, the police and Twitter have been incredibly slow to act - seemingly incapable of taking firm action, lacking in strategy and even apathetic. Which is why concerned Twitter users made their own move. At the behest of writer Caitlin Moran, a protest was organised. Tweeters were invited to cease posting on Sunday 4th August for 24 hours, in a show of solidarity with women enduring abuse on the network. This was the Twitter Silence.

It was carefully explained that anyone who wished to opt out wouldn't be seen as disrespectful or wrong - the protest was entirely voluntary. But, as is often the way with Twitter, this still gave rise to strong debate on both sides. Objectors argued that the abusers were seeking to prevent women from voicing opinions- therefore, falling silent would play into their hands. Supporters pointed out that Twitter is nothing without participants, and withdrawing contributions for a day would make this clear to the platform's operators. I'm happy to say the segments of this discussion I witnessed were conducted with dignity, good humour and eloquence. So much so that, for a while, I wasn't sure which side I favoured.

Ultimately I joined the supporters and posted nothing from midnight to midnight. Many users in my timeline continued with their messaging and I had no problem with that. Indeed, it felt empowering to see people making reasoned decisions and acting accordingly. Silent or vocal, the day felt like a small victory for freedom and compassion. As far as I could tell, many of those feeling alarm and anxiety at the monstrous behaviour of others, wanted the protest to happen, and that was enough to persuade me.

Of course, bullying is nothing new. The immature, ignorant and infantile have always sought to compensate for their failings by inflicting hurt. It is just incredibly frustrating that new media has proved to be such a useful tool for the viciousness of tiny minority; that a shabby collection of inadequate fools is now equipped to unleash such disproportionate misery.

There have been a few, high-profile instances of Twitter users being brought to book for libel (Sally Bercow springs to mind). Perhaps we should turn the strength of the law against the abusers in a similar way. Certainly, in a civilized society, 'trolling' is an issue we must tackle and cannot ignore. It is also astonishingly complex and there are no easy solutions.

For now, the best we can do is uphold the spirit of the Twitter Silence and make it clear we will not tolerate threats, fear tactics or outright bullying - online or anywhere else.  

Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant

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