Twitter trolls and our depressing age of unenlightenment

Gavin Esler identifies five surefire ways to spot a Twitter troll and why you should always question the experts

Senior Advisor Jared Kushner listens as US President Donald Trump speaks to the press on August 11, 2017, at his Bedminster National Golf Club in New Jersey. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON
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One of the great puzzles of life is why people who know nothing about a subject are so keen to demonstrate their ignorance by sounding off about it. Perhaps there is nothing new in this, but social media and international TV broadcasts mean stupidity is now globalised. Ignorance can go viral, publicly, loudly and worldwide before Knowledge gets its boots on. A few years ago after the UN published an authoritative climate change report, I interviewed on TV an academic who with absolute certainty pronounced that climate change was a hoax. When I asked him to explain his own knowledge of the subject he said he was a professor.

“A professor of what?” I asked him.

There was a pause.

“Aeronautical engineering,” he replied.

I would not fly in a plane designed by a climate scientist, and I would not take seriously the "expertise" of an aeronautical engineer on climate change. But, that's the problem. Expertise and experts - the core of the Enlightenment - are not trusted as they once were. As a leading Brexit campaigner, Michael Gove, once perceptively put it, when "experts" said Britain leaving the European Union would be a big mistake: "people in this country have had enough of experts". And so, welcome to the Un-Enlightenment.


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Over the past few days one of Europe's leading experts, Cambridge professor of classics Mary Beard, was attacked on social media for daring to suggest that Roman Britain might have included people who were non-European Africans and others from the far-flung Roman empire. I have met Prof Beard, like her enormously, and have read some of her work. She is learned, yes, and also fun, good humoured and polite, even towards the peculiar people on Twitter who have abused her. Prof Beard's books and TV appearances make her expertise accessible to anyone wanting to understand the ancient world. I am no expert in any of this, but I do know that empires generally involve people of different races and cultures mingling together. The Ottoman Turks, for example, readily accepted Jewish refugees expelled from Catholic Spain into what is now Orthodox Greece, seeing the talented newcomers as a great gift to their mixed Muslim and Christian empire.

The abuse of Prof Beard followed Twitter’s five rules for trolls:

1 The most virulent trolls are always anonymous, too cowardly to identify themselves.

2 The most stupid comments come from those with the silliest phoney Twitter names.

3 The abusers usually have few followers but Tweet incessantly.

4 The less the troll knows, the greater the certainty with which he (and it is usually a "he") claims to know it.

5 And women on social media receive the worst abuse.

Perhaps the 19th century American author Mark Twain predicted our age of Un-Enlightenment when he wrote that "it ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." Undoubtedly one piece of fake history that some people "know for sure" despite evidence to the contrary is that countries or empires were at some point "racially pure", whatever that means. The abuse of Prof Beard appears in part to be based on a nostalgic fantasy of England as some glorious land of white knights in armour, a homogeneous, immigrant-free society. Prof Beard's scholarship dared to suggest otherwise. Such fake history is surprisingly resistant to facts. A British taxi driver once lectured me about the English being "an island race" and England a far better place "before they let immigrants in" during the 1960s. I pointed out that sea routes connected Britain rather than cut it off, and that visitors and migrants arrived for 2,000 years or more The driver continued our dispute until I noticed his taxi licence showed his name was Fleming. I pointed out (unwisely) that this meant his family were probably immigrants from where Flemish was spoken, modern Belgium. Silence followed abruptly.


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And Prof Beard's expertise is not the only victim of our age of Un-Enlightenment. Never mind Romans, what about statins? Your doctor recommends you take them, but the internet Dr Google offers a hundred dissenting opinions. Or MMR, the preventative injection for measles, mumps and rubella? Two minutes on Google and you will find a virulent campaign linking MMR to autism, despite expert evidence saying this is nonsense. Or Donald Trump claiming the murder rate in the US was increasing? The statistics demonstrate otherwise, but as the prominent Trump supporter, Republican former house speaker Newt Gingrich, put it: "the current view is, liberals have a whole set of statistics which theoretically may be right, but it's not where human beings are." So when it comes to Prof Beard and experts worldwide, "theoretically" they may be right, but apparently "human beings" are somewhere else. On Twitter, probably. The Un-Enlightenment is winning. President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner said recently "We've read enough books." Not me. I haven't.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author