A few days ago, I did something that I was trained not to do: I replied to a troll. I should have known better, but I’d had a horrid week and had simply had enough. Let me explain.
As part of Yes Scotland’s digital team, the motto ‘do not feed the trolls’ was drilled into me. I lived by that rule during the campaign and have continued to do so since it ended. I have also, since the campaign ended, continued to make social media graphics commenting on our politics.
On Thursday, I read the comments of a prominent author, who again portrayed independence supporters as anti-English: ‘We’re talking about anti-English rhetoric from ‘significant’ people in SNP’. Coming after months of anti-Scottish rhetoric from all quarters in the media, I decided to make a comment of my own.
I drew a picture of the author, with the words ‘Up here on my $1bn ivory tower, I see only what I want to see’. To my mind, this is accurate statement: here is an author whose worth in 2014 was estimated by the Sunday Times as $1bn, making a statement that flatly contradicted my experience of the past few years.
I tweeted the graphic with these words: ‘I am sick to my back teeth of the super rich using their wealth to buy ‘democracy’ that suits only their prejudices’, referring to the author’s donation of £1m to the No campaign. Her justification for this act, published in the Telegraph, again flew counter to my experience on the ground. However my main point here is that I believe allowing a single person, or indeed corporation, to directly influence the running of a country by using their wealth in this manner is counter to democracy. Our society is run by and for the super rich. As long as politics is bought and paid for by them, this will always be the case. No matter how altruistic the motivation, there is no justification for any single entity being allowed such excess of influence.
As with any such social media posting, I was prepared for the usual mixed reaction. Yet a little over a day after posting, with the reactions gradually stopping, there was a sudden and great increase in trolling and personal attacks on me. In nine months of commenting in a personal capacity, I have seen nothing like it.
After hours of this I was on the verge of deleting the original post, when I happened across something very unexpected: the author had tweeted a screen grab of my post. Clearly this was the source of the sudden increase in negative attention. I was pretty shocked. The super rich and powerful using social media to attack a nobody isn’t something I’d come across before. Perhaps I’d been naive. Certainly, I now realise, the author in question has a long history of such acts.
She wrote: ‘Pro social mobility, anti anyone who achieves it? Reminded of my favourite Bredan (sic) Behan quote: “Fuck the begrudgers”.’
I thought of replying. I would have noted the UK is nearly the most unequal country in the developed world and social mobility has rarely been so hard to achieve. That the author gained riches from a background of rags has nothing to do with social mobility. She is a unique case and the rare luck of one author has nothing to do with the mobility of society as a whole. She can swear at me all she wants, yet the only thing I begrudge is living in a society where individuals can accumulate such extreme wealth, while millions have nothing. My problem is with the system, not her. In her actions, I am sure she means well. I admire the author’s support of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, which is a cause close to my heart.
I would have attempted to distill some of these arguments into 140 character but I found I had been blocked.
A double shock, then. Trolled and blocked all at once. What was the author thinking? What did she want? Why bring my hitherto mostly unnoticed comment to the attention of her 4.79m followers? When one of the most famous authors on the planet brings her influence to bear on a nobody artist from a country that voted not to be a country, what does it say about her? What is this situation?
Realising how close I had come to censoring myself and that I had gone into social media hiding, I was reminded of my high school days. That was a time when the most powerful people in my society – let’s call them the big boys – used their influence to scare me, to devalue me, to shame me and make me feel worthless. I spent lunchtimes hiding in classrooms and planned my every move to try to avoid confrontation. I was feeling the same way now.
I’m just one person trying to make my way in the world. I make art and I express opinions. Most of the time, very few people notice. On the times that I have stuck my head above the parapet to comment, I’ve never seen an army facing me before. When it happened this time, it scared me. That I am writing this with the hope of it being published online scares me. Sweaty-palms, knot in stomach, self-doubting scared.
This is my own particular experience of the rich and powerful trying to bully the weak into submission. I don’t have the fame and fortune that they can shield themselves with. I’m just me. I have no legions of devoted fans. Andy Warhol may have said ‘Don’t pay attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in column inches’, but you can bet it was after he’d achieved fame.
We live in a society of ever increasing inequality, while wealth, power and influence is held by an ever decreasing minority. This is not the kind of society I want to live in. In truth it angers and disgusts me. I believe that independence for Scotland is the best, if not only, way we can address these problems.
When I’m campaigning in the future, please remind let me not to feed the trolls.