John Nimmo and Isabella Sorley: A tale of two "trolls"

Yesterday, two people - a man and a woman - were convicted of sending threatening tweets to Caroline Criado-Perez. What do their stories tell us about the causes of internet abuse, and how to tackle it?

Arriving at court, John Nimmo hurried towards the door - the wrong one, as it turned out - with a hood pulled down low over his face. Isabella Sorley kept her head up, the red bobble on her hat bouncing in the wind. Earlier in the day, she had posted a self-portrait of herself outside Buckingham Palace on her Twitter account. She was accompanied by two people, possibly her parents, who sat in the public gallery for the hearing. Nimmo appeared to be there alone.

Sorley and Nimmo are superficially similar: both sent menacing tweets to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez in the summer of last year, including veiled and not-so-veiled threats of rape and murder. Both knew that their tweets would be read in the context of a campaign of harassment against Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy; they would have seen other messages outlining gruesome threats and deliberately obscene suggestions sent to the pair. "Rape is the last of your worries," wrote Sorley.  Nimmo's tweets included agreeing with another user that Criado-Perez "need[ed] to get fucked until you die". 

Go a little deeper, though, and their motivations for abusing Criado-Perez seem quite different. Understanding what separates them is vital if social media companies and the police are to tackle online abuse.

Nimmo was, in many ways, a classic "troll". His own lawyer described him as a sad individual, with little social life in the real world, who sent the abusive tweets for fame (or infamy) and recognition. Attention, whether positive or negative, was what he wanted. He has no criminal record, and it's possible (although, I would say, unlikely) he has not "trolled" before. 

Nimmo's lawyer said in court yesterday that he has learning difficulties, which is a rather broad label. Although it's rarely remarked on, several of those convicted of "trolling" offences have had anxiety or developmental disorders, or mental health problems - Frank Zimmerman, who abused Louise Mensch, had agoraphobia and other issues. Sean Duffy, who tormented the families of dead teenagers on Facebook, had Aspergers, alcohol problems and possibly schizophrenia, with his father John telling a local newspaper: "Sean is a mentally ill person and he is in the wrong place at the moment. Sean needs to be in some kind of intense psychiatric unit where they can get to the bottom of what has made him do this and make sure he gets cured of it." Colm Coss, one of the first internet abusers to be outed, also argued in court that mental health problems contributed to his actions. There's a hard thought here about whether internet abuse is partly the result of giving unwell people a direct line to strangers, and a readymade "formula" - in the form of rape and death threats - of how to get a response. It's also uncomfortable to face the idea that psychiatric care might do more good than prison sentences, although it's far harder to impose.

In contrast to John Nimmo's lonely existence, Isabella Sorley has what seems from her social media profiles to be a lively social life and many real world friends. However, she has had previous brushes with the law, linked to drunkenness. I spoke to her before the trial, and she said that she sent the tweets while "highly drunk". She seemed repentant: "I'd personally say the reason why I got into all this shit is because I jumped on the bandwagon, so to speak. That isn't an excuse . . . I didn't even know who [Caroline] was until I was arrested and told by the police what she was about. Of course, I support woman's rights, being one myself. I'm ashamed of my behaviour and like I've previously stated I won't be doing anything like this again." After some deliberation, she said I could quote her by name because if she could "help people in the future to not make the same mistake that I have, [if] that only be just one person, then it will be worth it".

A few days earlier, though, before she heard the Crown Prosecution Service were pressing charges, she had sent several tweets which appeared to be about the case. "You're in the public eye, you're on Twitter, then you should expect some sort of abuse. People take it all the time. Why are you different?!" read one. "What it has done, though, it has raised your profile. I'm sure you will never struggle to get a job now, unlike us who will. Publicity worked." Another claimed that "letters/words are never a threat. They're hardly going to jump off the page at you". Did the announcement of charges prompt her to reconsider her actions? Or was it only then that she realised the seriousness of the trouble she was in? That Buckingham Palace selfie - what you'd expect from someone doing the tourist trap tour of London rather than someone coming to the capital to face a custodial sentence - suggests that she might still be struggling to acknowledge the profound consequences this trial will have on the rest of her life. 

It looks as though Nimmo was also blind to the potential consequences of what he was doing, although for a different reason. He was posting under a pseudonym, "Johnny", and the handle @beware0088. It took an investigation by Newsnight to link his Twitter account to a videogame profile where he used his real name and so track him down. Although she opened a new account to abuse Criado-Perez, Sorley made no great attempt to disguise who she was - she told me that she had not protected her IP address, even. (Attempts to find out who sent bomb threats to female journalists have been stymied because the perpetrator(s) used Tor, a programme which allows users to browse the web anonymously.) Nimmo seems to have expected that he was immune because of the superficial anonymity afforded by the internet.

In their own ways, both "jumped on a bandwagon". Sorley found a new outlet, Twitter, for behaviour which was clearly already a problem in the real world. Nimmo found a method to get plaudits for transgressive behaviour and a strange sort of outlaw glamour among his fellow trolls, some of whom were probably far more scrupulous about concealing their identities and happy to goad others on and watch them get caught. The form both Sorley and Nimmo's tweets took was also shaped by the prevailing culture: rape threats are the internet's favourite smackdown for uppity women (and sometimes men). That's why it's less surprising that one of those convicted was a woman; if you're joining a mob, you don't get to dictate its norms. 

Nimmo and Sorley are just two of dozens of people who bombarded Caroline Criado-Perez with abuse: her lawyer identified more than 80 accounts which targeted her. As far as I can see, there are two problems holding back the public discussion about how to deal online abuse, and this case underlines both of them. The first is that much of the abuse is simply unquotable in "family newspapers" or before - even after - the watershed. "You never know what it’s like, because no mainstream paper will print it, nobody on the radio will let you say it, and so it came to look as if I was worried that they said I hadn’t done my hair," as the indomitable Mary Beard described the way she was targeted. Everyday Sexism's Laura Bates once told me that it was a grim irony that rape threats were one of the few types of abuse she received that she could talk about in polite company. 

If you don't know the kind of abuse that Caroline Criado Perez suffered, here it is in her own words: "I remember the man who told me I’d never track him down, only feel his cock while he was raping me; the man who told me he would pistol-whip me over and over until I lost consciousness, while my children watched, and then burn my flesh; the man who told me he had a sniper rifle aimed directly at my head and did I have any last words, fugly piece of shit? I remember the man who told me to put both hands on his cock and stroke it till he came on my eyeballs or he would slit my throat; the man who told me I would be dead and gone that night, and that I should kiss my pussy goodbye, as a group of them would “break it irreparably”; the man who told me a group of them would mutilate my genitals with scissors and set my house on fire while I begged to die. I can see their words on the screen. I remember where I was when I got them. I remember the fear, the horror, the despair. I remember feeling sick. I remember not being able to sleep. I remember thinking it would never end."

The second problem that we need to confront before we can tackle online abuse is this: there will always be people who are mentally ill, or reckless, or silly, or otherwise not making the best decisions. There is also a prevailing climate of misogyny which means that the mere existence of women, particularly high profile or outspoken ones, is offensive to some people and they very much want to tell them so. Opportunity, motive and the twisted sort of social reinforcement you can get for being outrageously awful coagulate into a toxic brew poisoning public discourse. Caroline Criado-Perez has been very open about the threats and abuse she has received: I've spoken to many other women who feel too scared to speak out, or are convinced that they will be ignored, doubted or dismissed as over-sensitive.

What we cannot do is ignore what's happening. Social networking has made us more connected than ever before. Where we could walk by the drunk screaming in the street or get away from the man shouting on the bus, we can't any longer. Troubled people - and the hatred, pain and demons which plague them - are right there in front of us. Will it be enough to make us act?

Additional reporting: Ruby Lott-Lavigna and Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

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Now listen to Helen discussion trolling and internet abuse with Laurie Penny and Ian Steadman on the NS podcast:

Caroline Criado-Perez, who was targeted by internet abusers. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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How Facebook and Google are killing papers and transforming news

If journalism is to survive, it needs either to cut costs (read: sack journalists), or build revenues.

When I started work at the Daily Mail in 2005, there was often a discussion among the men who decided the running order of stories about which pages should be printed in black and white. Not all the presses used colour, and God help the unthinking journalist who placed a story about a man painting his entire council house with replica Michelangelos on a page that would end up in “mono”.

That story makes me feel very old (I’m 33), but it highlights the accelerated pace of change in the news industry in the past decade and a half. I also remember the cuttings library, and a time when headlines were written to fit arbitrary spaces on a page, rather than having to be stuffed full of searchable keywords. Those days are gone.

The first newspapers were printed in the 17th century, and the methods of both their creation (movable type) and their distribution (on paper) remained broadly unchanged for three centuries. When Marxism Today’s published its New Times issue in 1988, that system was unravelling. Computers had arrived and the print unions’ insistence on sharply delineated workplace roles was under threat. This had already led to the Wapping dispute of 1986, in which Rupert Murdoch moved his newspapers to new headquarters to break the collective power of the printers. It took 13 months and 1,262 arrests, but it ended with thousands of men in effect accepting that their skills were obsolete.

That trend has merely continued. Today’s journalism students are encouraged to become jacks of all trades – they learn how to make videos, record podcasts and use databases, they master Photoshop, they understand social media and, yes, they even write and edit stories.

On one level, the world of news now seems gloriously open: anyone can start a blog, anyone can publish on the Huffington Post (if you don’t mind not being paid) or Medium, and anyone can build a following on Twitter or Facebook. But there are new barriers to entry. Where many of my older colleagues at the Mail had started work at 16 – often on local papers, because NUJ rules demanded you spend two years there before heading to Fleet Street – young journalists increasingly have postgraduate qualifications as well as degrees. That privileges the middle class and those whose parents live in London, and who can therefore live at home while trying to break in to the industry.

Local newspapers, once the training ground for young reporters, are dying out: there has been a net loss of 198 since 2005, according to the Press Gazette. Their classified adverts have gone online or gone altogether, and some of those titles that remain are consolidated into remote industrial parks, far from the communities they serve. So there is less reporting of court cases and of the petty corruption of councillors (Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs, which still covers that ground, is never short of material).

In place of independent papers are glossy PR puffs produced by councils. In December, the editor of the Hackney Citizen complained that the local authority was producing its own fortnightly freesheet, Hackney Today. The latter sells advertising space, making it a direct competitor to independent newspapers, and the council pays for 108,000 copies to be printed by Trinity Mirror and distributed to households every fortnight. It is produced by a press office.

National newspapers are also struggling. Print circulations are falling and the returns on display advertising online can be pitiful. Most online adverts are “programmatic”: sold in real-time auctions on a CPM (cost per mille, or thousand clicks) basis. Users hate them for slowing page loads or interrupting their reading. Unsurprisingly, the use of ad-blocking software has risen steadily.

The industry has tried to fight back by expanding the types of adverts it sells. That is why everyone became so excited about video a few years ago: publishers could place an unskippable advert before a video clip and charge pounds, not pennies, using CPM.

The internet-only news organisation BuzzFeed had another strategy: from the start, it didn’t sell display advertising, only “native ads”: what used to be called advertorial. The theory was that users might be irritated by display ads but they wouldn’t object to a pet-food brand sponsoring a heart-warming video about life with a pet. In at least one case, this paid off handsomely – BuzzFeed’s 2015 collaboration with Purina led to a video called Puppyhood, which racked up four million views in two weeks. The challenge is to repeat that winning formula again and again.

Other publishers tried the start-up mantra: build it, scale it fast, hope the revenues turn up at some point. Medium, a cleanly designed blogging platform, was launched by the Twitter co-founder Ev Williams in 2012 and attracted big-name publications and writers. But on 4 January Williams announced that he was “renewing Medium’s focus” by cutting a third of its staff, because it was not financially sustainable. “It’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet,” he wrote. “The vast majority of articles, video and other ‘content’ we all consume on a daily basis is paid for – directly or indirectly – by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified and rewarded based on its ability to do that.”

If journalism is to survive, it needs either to cut costs (read: sack journalists), or build revenues. Hence the proliferation of sidelines: conferences, round tables, business-to-business operations, events, sponsored supplements and the rest. Some companies are trying a more direct approach. The heavily loss-making Guardian is investing in a membership scheme, and the radical US magazine Mother Jones has a pledge to fund in-depth reporting. (Individual journalists are trying this, too: the Patreon website offers readers a chance to fund writers directly, at a set cost per month or per piece.)

Of course, someone is making money out of the great flowering of content on the web. Facebook has 1.86 billion monthly users, and in the third quarter of 2016 its net income was $2.38bn, up from $896m a year earlier. Along with Google, it controls two-thirds of the online advertising market. “Facebook is the new town hall,” Mark Zuckerberg told investors. Unfortunately for him, that role in public life is what made Facebook the focus of the row about “fake news” after the US election. For millions of people, Facebook is where they get their news; its editorial decisions and inbuilt biases shape our common understanding of reality.

You might not have to get your words past the print unions any more, but you do have to pander to what Facebook’s and Google’s guiding algorithms deem important. Zuckerberg has more power than anyone who bought ink by the barrel ever did.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times