To have watched both The Trick and The Enemy within days of each other is not conducive to optimism about the future of society or even the planet – but these exemplary pieces of drama still need to be seen and discussed.
BBC1’s recent production The Trick stars Jason Watkins as Professor Philip Jones of the University of East Anglia and Victoria Hamilton as his wife Ruth. It is based on the real-life 2009 climate ‘scandal’ which was triggered by a (still-anonymous) email leak of the work of this eminent climate scientist. His life and reputation, and those of his wife, are torn apart as a result. The impact of the trolling which ensues pushes Jones to the outer edge of sanity.
A brilliant but shy academic, Jones has to be coached in the correct way to respond to interrogation by a hostile parliamentary committee of enquiry. That process, although necessary, is arguably more traumatic than his original vilification in the media – but without it his supporters know that the professor will not be believed.
The enquiries which took place in the wake of this artificial ‘scandal’ universally exonerated the real Professor Jones. The time it took to arrive at that conclusion – a decade – may have cost us the future of our planet. Who benefits?
This idea of being caught unawares and powerless at the eye of a media storm is also central to The Enemy, The National Theatre of Scotland’s powerful reworking of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
Ibsen’s original public baths backdrop has been transformed in this production into a luxurious water-park spa resort aimed at regenerating a run-down industrial town. So far so laudable, until the scientist sister of the town’s provost makes an unwelcome discovery. To Kirsten (Hannah Donaldson), their only course of action is clear, but her sister (Gabriel Quigley) has staked her political reputation on bringing the project to fruition. The unfolding of the plot is ugly and divisive, further corroded by an all-too-easily corruptible press and other unscrupulous media figures.
The skilful multimedia back projection to the performance adds a sinister dimension through the easy manipulation by those in power of quick-fire social media responses. This is all the more chilling because the audience cannot help but laugh at some posts to the thread (one from a @Peter_Benchley, supporting a metaphorical running gag). Worst of all, only part of the audience may not realise the complicity in its laughter. Trolling isn’t fun, or funny, at all.
I am an author, so usually discuss and review books here, not film or TV. Why this departure?
Early in Lockdown I became concerned about a local community noticeboard site on Facebook. About 8000 local folk are members. It is the site people use to post about missing cats, dropped car keys and reliable plumbers. Fear and frustration were mounting at the time and needed an outlet: and it was during the #BlackLivesMatter protests, someone misguidedly (and by dead of night) removed pro-#BLM posters made by youngsters from a local High Street. Some heated group posts on the subject were taken down and I was shocked by the vicious response to the admins who had done so. I made contact with the team, eventually stepping up to the role myself rather than see a useful community resource fold, as did a number of others who felt the same way.
Following Police Scotland advice on trolling, we immediately revised our rules about group membership and post content, and then introduced moderated posts. This process delays posting and increases admin time, but does also mean the team can veto anything which breaks agreed group rules.
Moderating posts led to immediate accusations of ‘cancel culture’ and the trolling dates from that point. Someone began a separate private group, ostensibly to encourage greater freedom of speech and ‘speak truth to power’. Instead it provided a poorly-policed platform for trolls, who shared material from my personal direct messages and Facebook posts there. Friends and family members read all this and began to express serious concern for my wellbeing. Worst of all, the trolls began to target some of them too.
The impact of trolling on social media users is to polarise them. The saner, more grounded souls refuse to swim in the toxic swamp at all and delete their Facebook and other accounts. Others observe from the sidelines but say nothing to support the victim because they are too afraid to attract attention to themselves. More still will unthinkingly like and share, with self-justification like ‘oh, it’s just a bit of a laugh,’ or ‘she was asking for it, stuck-up cow,’ or ‘no smoke without fire.’ Others will move from being an observer to becoming sucked into the downward spiral as trolls themselves.
And the impact? As a result of three or four separate episodes of trolling over the past two years, many people within my little community will now have a vague idea that I am somehow racist, or an opponent of mental health advocacy or even, most recently and bizarrely, a champion of illegal unpasteurised milk production. There is nothing whatsoever I can do about this nonsense: what is once read cannot be unread, even once deleted. Trolls watch you from the shadows, waiting for you to make a comment or action which displeases them. Their aim appears to be to pressurise a victim into a response: they will post things like ‘there she goes again, it’s always all about her,‘ or ‘thought we’d got shot of that bitch last time.’ You can delete this stuff, but someone, somewhere, will already have read and absorbed it as fact.
Trolling is insidious. It seeps into the souls of both the trolls, who become addicted, and of the trolled. For a time at the beginning I felt mystified that some in the community I try to serve seemed to have turned on me. Now I have learned that to respond directly in any way is to feed the monster. I am tougher and more phlegmatic (as well as more savvy about social media privacy settings). I believe that what I do for my community is useful and so I stick with it. As an author, too, I have to have a public profile – so deleting everything and stepping away is not an option for me. When trolls denigrate what I do as in some way self-serving, I now think of a phrase my grandfather Tom would use in the trenches: if you stick your head above the parapet then you will get shot at.
Not everyone will be as capable of tholing it, however. Our society depends on volunteering and yet the undervaluing or public humiliation of social media admin teams, community councils (remember the grim spectacle of Handforth?) and other local groups and committees will adversely impact on future recruitment to these small yet essential unpaid roles.
There is no real recourse for the victims of trolling. The police cannot do anything other than advise on limiting it. It took a decade to vindicate poor Philip Jones. Many in my own community – both those who know me and those who do not – may now perceive me in a different way from before, my integrity tarnished in the eyes of some by what amounts to an unanswerable smear campaign.
Who gains from this behaviour? Who knows? It confuses truth and lies. It destabilises the fragile fabric of society. It hurts innocent people. It is normalised – but it is not ok. It is never OK.
This is why I am grateful to the writers of The Enemy and The Trick. Someone else out there has noticed. We need to talk about trolling. Thank you, Owen Shears and Kieran Hurley.
Seeing either or (ideally) both these stellar dramas should encourage each of us to reflect on how we use social media – or rather to take a long, hard look at how it uses us.
The Trick is available to watch on BBC iPlayer. It is 90 minutes long.
The Enemy (National Theatre of Scotland) is also 90 minutes long, with no interval. It will be touring theatres in Scotland until November 12th 2021. https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/events/the-enemy
Vee Walker is an author based in the Scottish Highlands. Her début novel Major Tom’s War (now available in paperback from http://www.kashihouse.com), was a prizewinner at the SAHR Military Fiction Awards 2019. She is working on her second novel, The Patiala Letter.