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


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 regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.