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The Anti-Social Network (BBC3)

Rachel Cooke is unsettled by a documentary on internet abuse.

The Anti-Social Network

Why was Richard Bacon's documentary, The Anti-Social Network (19 March, 9pm), hidden away on BBC3? People who see the point of BBC3 will, of course, insist that it wasn't hidden away at all: the station's schedule is full of marvellous zeitgeisty stuff like this and I should tune in more often. But the rest of us, a touch baffled by BBC3's continued existence, will feel that it would have been equally at home on BBC2. Certainly, more people would have seen it there, which would have been a good thing. I can't remember the last time a film about something so relatively quotidian - internet trolls - made me feel so queasy, discomfited and, in the end, despairing.

What is to be done about trolls? God knows. As journalists, we're urged to "engage" with those who post aggressive comments beneath our names. If we do, they'll shut up. But I'm not so sure. A certain kind of hater wants a reaction, and their enjoyment of this when it comes - the buzz it gives them - only encourages them to have another go. The spite ratchets up, at which point it morphs into something toxic. Bacon, a clever, talented and mostly likeable broadcaster, has had a troll for the past two years. Quite a nasty troll. He wants Bacon to die and fantasises about seeing his mangled body among the wreckage of a car crash. In the film, Bacon began by wanting to meet him. By the time the titles were about to roll, however, he felt differently. The experts chorused that he should contact the police.

I use the word "brave" only rarely. But Bacon's willingness to talk about his troll, to repeat the comments he posts on Twitter (255 abusive tweets in the weeks it took him to make the documentary alone), seemed to me to be both brave and rather becoming, most famous people being reluctant to admit to anything other than universal adoration. Then again, his experiences did somewhat pale beside those of his interviewees. I knew that RIP pages - Facebook pages established after a person has died - were troubled by trolls, but I'd no idea at all how heinous they can be. Dear God. Who are these people who Photoshop pictures of boys who have killed themselves so that their eyes are bleeding and a noose is tight about their neck? When Horatio Chapple was killed by a polar bear during a school expedition last year, the trolls posted pictures of dismembered body parts on a site in his memory. "ETON MESS," said one caption (Chapple was a pupil at Eton.) "ON NOM NOM."

Who are these people? Well, here's the thing. As regular listeners to Radio 5 Live will know, Bacon is nothing if not dogged (and so long as he keeps to the right side of David Brent, something he doesn't always achieve, this is great; he's on our side). It wasn't long before he had spoken, face to face, with not one, but two self-confessed trolls. The first, Colm Coss, is one of only two people to be convicted of posting abusive comments under the Communications Act 2003. He got 18 weeks, an experience that seems to have chastened him not at all. (According to police interviews, he is "provoked" by the kind remarks posted on Facebook by people who do not even know the person the page in question memorialises.)

The second was Damon Evans, who likes to make anal sex jokes about recently deceased children. Naturally, neither was the repulsive, bedroom-dwelling, ball-scratching, Y-front-wearing, sock-masturbating Marillion fan of one's imagination - though this being TV, I do not know if they had BO and fetid jeans (Bacon, pro that he is, did not so much as flinch).

Coss politely refused to submit to questioning and bicycled shamelessly off. Evans, who turned up for a meeting with Bacon knowing a camera would be there, lied about his trolling, only to email later and admit to the greater part of it. Why so bare-faced? My own theory - as a Twitter addict, Bacon fought shy of blaming the internet itself - is that those who live the greater part of their lives online become fatally detached from the rest of us. For them, we cease to exist - and if a person doesn't exist, how can he or she have any feelings?

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible