Wednesday, 30 March 2016


Earlier this week, former Channel 4 economics editor Paul Mason observed that "wherever the internet is not censored, it is awash with anger, stereotypes and prejudice". Mason's useful (if depressing) article discusses instances of both anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim agitation online and describes the forces behind them as "giant pumps of unreason, beating in opposite directions but serving the same purpose: to pull apart rational discourse and democratic politics."

I would take issue with the idea of treating Islam/Muslims on one hand and Judaism/Jews on the other as opposites. Not helpful. Uncharacteristically clumsy phrasing from Mason, perhaps. But his brief tour of the worst of the internet is otherwise well done, taking in a number of wearily familiar tropes: the conflation of many disparate conspiracy theories with one another and with Israel and Jews; the logic-resistant insistence of those who get all their information from Twitter, Reddit and shock jocks that nothing published by mainstream news sources is ever true.

Sometimes I have chosen to tangle with people of this sort, wondering whether their hot bile might be cooled and their ferocious invective quietened by being challenged to produce evidence for their wild claims. Another tactic involves inviting them to feel shame for being hatefully uncivilised or for the outright (and obvious) falsehoods they so often articulate. 

These falsehoods are served up as not only as words but also as photographs and illustrations. It does not take very much skill, after all, to find and misappropriate images from online sources. Not much more skill is needed annotate these images in order to use them in misleading ways.

Consider a charmless chap I stumbled upon today. Claiming to be a fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and a former member of the Royal Navy, this Cornishman is a rich source of the kind of material decried in Paul Mason's piece. Consider this tweet of his:

We are told that the children in the picture are nine-year old Austrian girls who have been "brutalised and raped" by "migrant Muslim teens". This is an obvious lie. Even a cursory glance shows that the photograph was clearly taken in a British primary school rather than in Austria. More damningly, the picture can easily be identified as a stock photo licensed by Getty Images. It was used in 2013 to illustrate an Independent article about Michael Gove's approach to the primary curriculum:

Perhaps you don't take issue with this Twitter user for his antipathy towards Islam and Muslims. His prerogative, of course. But it's harder to look kindly on the kind of behaviour shown here. Consider how you would feel, for instance, if you recognised your own daughter in the photo attached to this person's tweet. Your daughter's image mislabelled as that of an Austrian rape victim by a grown man seeking to stoke up hostility towards Muslims. Despicable, isn't it?

He's a coward, too, this fellow. Predictably, when presented with the evidence of his clumsy and easily detected fabrication, @cuzzinharry deleted the offending tweet.

Using images of children to stir up hatred in this way is by no means a new thing. Joshua Bonehill-Paine of Yeovil, Somerset, a somewhat notorious self-styled "nationalist, fascist, theorist and supporter of white rights" used to be rather fond of the tactic prior to his current incarceration. The only time I can recall him interacting directly with me, for instance, he was tweeting via a handle called Find Tom Cunningham, which he'd set up purely to keep repeating an anti-Semitic smear involving a fictitious missing child having supposedly disappeared near a synagogue. This moronic reworking of the age-old blood libel was not Bonehill-Paine's first use of a "missing child" ruse. More than a year before the Find Tom Cunningham nonsense, he'd attracted the attention of the national press for a very similar stunt. All very much in character, because Bonehill-Paine is certainly the kind of person to whom Mason's term giant pump of unreason can be applied.

Calling out these grim provocateurs can be exhausting work. They tend to be relentless and obsessive. As well as being tiring, moreover, these efforts almost always seem to be fruitless. Never more so than when running up against the ceaselessly parroted contention that to challenge the screed of a troll is to stand in opposition to "free speech". I am reminded here of a recent article by US journalist Chris Hedges, who worries about the number of people in the USA gravitating towards a new American fascism. 
These Americans want a kind of freedom - a freedom to hate. They want freedom to use words like "nigger", "kike", "spic", "chink", "raghead" and "fag". They want the freedom to idealize violence and the gun culture. They want the freedom to have enemies, to physically assault Muslims, undocumented workers, African-Americans, homosexuals and anyone who dares criticize their cryptofascism. They want the freedom to celebrate historical movements and figures that the college-educated elites condemn, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederacy. They want the freedom to ridicule and dismiss intellectuals, ideas, science and culture. They want the freedom to silence those who have been telling them how to behave. And they want the freedom to revel in hypermasculinity, racism, sexism and white patriarchy.
This is not solely an American phenomenon, of course. Here in the UK we have plenty of online bullyboys who like to bang on about "free speech" while proposing to use that freedom for nothing more constructive than articulating hatred or harassing people. Bonehill-Paine is hardly unique.

Another notable British example of the type, then, is Peter Nunn, the Bristol LGV driver (he calls himself a "businessman") who did some jail time in 2014 for directing filthy, threatening and very sinister remarks via Twitter towards Stella Creasy MP and the journalist Caroline Criado-Perez. On emerging from prison, Nunn returned to his social media accounts, using them to masquerade, unconvincingly, as a self-styled free speech campaigner. In this role, Nunn leaps to the defence of others who, like him, have found themselves facing legal difficulties arising from the horrible things they write online. Nunn's white knight role, however, is nothing more than a disingenuous piss-take, as evidenced by the fact that those he defends are always particularly egregious trolls. One such is Chloe Cowan, a woman who has admitted in court to the deeply distasteful and upsetting trolling of Denise Fergus, mother of murdered Liverpool toddler James Bulger. Another toxic dingbat praised by Nunn is Chris Spivey, a man given a suspended jail term for persistently harassing the family of the murdered soldier, Fusilier Lee Rigby. Then there's John Nimmo of South Shields, who shares with Nunn the dubious honour of having been jailed for sending sinister threats to Ms. Criado-Perez. Predictably, Peter Nunn has offered warm words of support for the dismal Nimmo.

In every case, Nunn describes these nasty characters as "free speech activists". Sometimes he calls them "satirists".  He is, of course, alluding to the fact that this is how he chooses to present himself, which is a truly ludicrous conceit.

These antics would be unpleasant enough even if no tangible ill-effects resulted from Nunn's cheerleading for the likes of Cowan, Spivey and Nimmo. But it is my contention that Peter Nunn is capable of encouraging those he praises beyond the point of caution and towards real and damaging consequences of their spite. When Joshua Bonehill-Paine, for example, was careering maniacally towards his current stint in prison, he was encouraged to proceed on his reckless course by people who chose to offer him succour. Young Joshua appears to be a badly damaged and sadly confused person. Seemingly not unintelligent, he has nevertheless been making an arse of himself and getting into trouble with the law since 2011. In the years that followed, Bonehill-Paine's stunts became ever more ludicrous and ever more venomous. All the while, he was cheered on by the likes of Peter Nunn.

Goading a vulnerable, unemployable youth towards repeated humiliation and prison is a horrible business. Disingenuously lauding that youth as a supposed champion of free speech then adds insult to injury.

But I don't believe Peter Nunn is the worst of the people irresponsible enough to make a sport of encouraging a young man towards his eventual custodial sentence. After all, Nunn's own life appears to have sustained pretty serious damage as a result of his trolling antics. So perhaps he is incapable of better judgement and of consistent decency and is therefore to be pitied as much as condemned.

Worse, in my view, are those who egged on Bonehill-Paine without ever seeming to suffer real consequences themselves. Imagine, if you will, a grown man old enough to have fathered children who are now adults. Imagine this father of grown adults lacking the compassion and the good judgement to refrain from encouraging a confused, damaged young person to continue along a path of self-destruction. I don't have to imagine this person because he exists. Every time Bonehill-Paine set up some new Twitter account, this guy (joined by Peter Nunn) would be among the first to show up in its list of followers. Each time young Joshua did something poisonously stupid, this grown man would wear the mask of an apparently reasonable person, coolly justifying Bonehill-Paine's lunacy in terms of (you guessed it) "free speech". The guy I'm thinking of is named Michael Faulkner. He resides in Rainham, Essex. One of his hobbies seems to be Pixie Lott fandom and interacting online with fellow (younger, female) Pixie Lott fans. That's a little odd. But it's probably harmless. Unlike his other hobby of slyly encouraging self-loathing misfits like Joshua Bonehill-Paine to cause harm to themselves and to others. For that, Mr. Faulkner ought to be ashamed of himself. It's a horrible thing to do - and just another piece of shit floating down the wide river of horror recently described to us by writers such as Paul Mason and Chris Hedges.

1 comment:

  1. Much support for Bonehill derives from Mike Tynan of Rotherhithe telling us whom we can and CANNOT read on social meejah.