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Maggie Brown: More needs to be done to protect against social media trolls

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A few weeks ago, I woke up to find a host of Twitter wasps buzzing angrily about a comment I had made. Let’s just say it was about Michael Jackson, and what I thought was a cautious message supporting a fellow showbusiness editor over the shock we’d felt of previewing Leaving Neverland. By contrast, my tweet a few days later about the wickedly anti-Trump performer Andy Borowitz at the wonderful Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York passed into the ether without a pushback.

Over the past decade, I’ve become used to aggressive reactions – especially when contracted to do a Guardian media podcast – usually from people exasperated by my fundamental respect for the BBC, a huge red rag to those who loathe the licence fee. But nothing compares to virulent and passionate Jackson fans hunting in a pack.

One of the problems with social media is that people can hide behind anonymity. Not using their real name or mugshots in correspondence means they forsake normal civilised debate. In my fantasy world, if Queen for a day, I would insist on no participation without true identity.

The Jackson experience made me feel quite nostalgic for the ‘green ink’ letters

The Jackson experience made me feel quite nostalgic for the ‘green ink’ letters, usually written on lined notepaper rambling over several pages, which used to be a feature of newspapers when I first set out on my career. I even had a few from readers of The Stage. At least they arrived as an individually crafted attack, someone had taken the time and effort to write, get a stamp and post it. Some even had addresses, and I usually wrote back a brief, respectful thank you.

There has been much written about the harm, in some cases extreme, caused to once ordinary people suddenly scooped up into the heady world of instant television, who don’t possess the resilience of most professionally trained performers.

The wounding personal remarks about appearances and character unleashed by trolling viewers have skyrocketed over the last decade, with the spread of fly-on-the-wall documentaries, constructed reality series and talent shows.

What is the duty of television producers and their broadcasters? All broadcasters employ lawyers to ensure they comply with the law and their licences. When writing the latest history of Channel 4, I found a near universal view that social media has become the bane of TV life, with vitriol directed at programmes that are harmless, and a level of vindictiveness towards broadcasters that seems unhealthy.

They often advise contributors to factual programmes to come off Twitter and Facebook. Production companies are briefed on giving advice on privacy settings: imagine the kind of remarks that contestants on Naked Attraction – the dating show with full-frontal nudity – could face. But this is really in preparation for the broadcast. What about afterwards and that army of angry hornets?

Maggie Brown contributes to the Guardian, Observer and the Media Podcast and is the author of The Story of Channel 4. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/maggie-brown

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