There is something deeply unsettling about the news concerning Barbara Leyland, the so-called Internet troll who had allegedly posted hundreds of abusive Tweets about Kate and Gerry McCann, parents of the missing girl Madeleine – a full report is here.
Ms Leyland was found dead in a Leicestershire hotel bedroom on Saturday, having herself been hounded by representatives of the British media during the week. Quite by chance I happened to see the Sky TV news broadcast on Thursday 2 October which left an unpleasant taste in the mouth as the reporter pounced on Ms Leyland outside her home. Thankfully, that piece of ‘investigative journalism’ is not available online presumably in deference to the tragedy that ensued after its broadcast. I don’t condone Ms Leyland’s defamatory comments about the McCanns – but she did not deserve such a tragic end to her life.
The night before the Sky News story Channel 4 aired its controversial documentary The Paedophile Hunter following the exploits of self-styled ‘undercover reporter’ Stinson Hunter who lures and entraps men looking for sex with underage girls. The documentary was deeply disturbing, showing how these men were ruthless in grooming and exploiting the [fake] teenagers for their own ends before being exposed by Hunter and his associates who filmed their reactions during and after each sting. One of the men caught killed himself a few days later.
Mr Hunter has had overwhelming support of his actions online with 250,000 followers on Facebook and thousands of pounds being donated through a Kickstarter fund he set up. The message of the programme was clear; Hunter is filling a vacuum left by an exasperated police service which, because of a lack of funding and being dragged down by red tape, do not have the resources to keep up with, let alone intervene, to address this growing problem.
There is a lot of debate in cyberspace about the impact of the Internet on society. These two troubling incidents reflect the power the ‘person on the street’ wields with his or her keyboard. Mr Hunter, a former drug abuser who served time in prison in his early 20s, has found a niche in showing his immense talent of making abusive men think he is a vulnerable young girl. And I cannot deny that he has succeeded in doing what the judiciary, accountable to an elected government, could not do. But at what cost? Are we so afraid of Internet trolls that we need to drive them to suicide? Do we sleep better at night knowing that vigilantes are doing the work of the police. The whole thing is becoming depressingly similar to an online video game, available at £39.99 from the usual stockists.