I was interested to see that three university forensic psychologists have published the results of their research into online trolling, focussing on the case of missing Madeleine McCann.
I can of course see why the case of missing Madeleine was selected. Madeleine vanished at a time when social media was in it's infancy, arguably Madeleine was the first missing child to have the power of the internet behind her. Gerry didn't don hiking boots to search for his daughter, he opened his laptop, and, some might say, Pandora's box.
From the perspective of studying trolling and antisocial behaviour online, the McCann hashtag might well be unique. I haven't looked, but I understand there are similar hashtags in the cases of Amanda Knox, Oscar Pistorius and Jonbenet Ramsey. Dr. Synnott may be interested to know that notorious 'pro' McCann, Jayelles, was equally gripped by the Jonbenet case, though against the parents on that occasion.
What troubles me about Dr. Synnott's research, and I admit I haven't read the full paper, is that it doesn't seem to explore the reasons behind the trolling. How it began, how it evolved and why it is still going strong 10 years later.
The paper appears to begin with confirmation bias, that is, they had already labelled their subjects malevolent and antisocial. Easy to do on the McCann hashtag admittedly, but not an open minded approach to research. It is entitled 'the damaging impact the McCann' trolls behaviour has had on those victimized both online and offline'. If that isn't a title with an agenda, I don't know what is? It feels like a precursor to some sort of new clampdown on McCann critics, bringing that same eerie feeling that came with the Summers and Swan book and Jim Gamble's determination to get the lot of us into the dock. Just before Sky News pounced on Brenda Leyland. In any event, another snidey way in which to silence subversives on the internet, critics of the McCanns especially.
The big question of course is WHY these alleged trolls do what they do? Why are some of these people obsessively tweeting virtually the same information over and over again? I agree many of them do tick a lot of the abnormal behaviour boxes, and some are just downright mean. The reasons for their meanness btw, can be found in their off script words, there is usually a lot of projecting going on. That they are unleashing their anti social alter egos online under anonymous pseudonyms is not rocket science or even brain surgery. Just wait until (and if) you get around to researching the behaviour of the anonymous 'pro' McCann trolls, they take psychopathic behaviour to a whole new level.
But getting back to the still active 10 years on McCann hashtag. Did those researchers, during any phase of their study, ever consider that the 'trolls' might believe they are right, or indeed, might be right? That they might have good reason to believe the parents were involved in Madeleine's disappearance and are involved in what could well be the biggest crime story of the 21st Century? If they have excluded those questions from their study, they have missed out on at least 50% of the reasons people still show an interest in this case, and in some cases, obsessively. A small child disappeared and the main suspects appear to be above the law. Some might say they are protected by the establishment, maybe in the form of university papers that stress the parents' innocence and pronounce their critics bonkers.
Dr. Synnot and his team seem to have approached their subject with the objective that anyone who doesn't believe the McCann's abduction story has got something wrong with them. He says for example the researchers tried to join the discussion by 'introducing a scientific paper that debunks the core piece of evidence cited by the McCann Group.......'. [the dogs]. Dr. Synnot it would seem, is not aware that the McCann media monitors have been trying to debunk the evidence of the dogs, since May 2007. That he thought this paper would win him friends and influence people, is bizarre, especially for a psychologist.
But let's get back to how it all began. Gerry and Kate deliberately created a media sensation when their daughter disappeared, and for 10 years they have done everything in their power to keep that media sensation going, even paying Lord Bell £500k to keep them on the front pages for a year, which he did. Does Dr. Synnott explore the fact that the 'victimized', the McCanns, have PR agents and a spokesman who ensure they are constantly in the news? The Portuguese Supreme Court did.
I also wonder if Dr. Synnott and his colleagues explored the phenomenon of 'paid shills'. He seems to dismiss them as some sort of urban myth. The fact is 'shilling' (if that's the right word), is probably one of the fast growing industries in the 21st century. Social media can make or break careers and reputations, I would imagine most corporations, politicians, super rich etc, employ 'media monitors'. Anonymous shills who will attempt to change opinion or disrupt. In the Libel trial, Michael Wright revealed in the witness box, that the media monitoring began from the start. That those they tried to silence fought back was inevitable. Battles are no longer fought on sodden moors Dr. Synnott, they are fought on social media.