This morning brought news of the suicide of a media-branded ‘troll’. Brenda Leyland, the 63 year-old woman behind the @sweepyface Twitter account, a self-proclaimed “researcher” and “anti-McCann” advocate was found dead at a Marriott hotel on Saturday 4th October in Leicester. She was recently contacted by a reporter at Sky News regarding her Twitter activity which frequently suggested that the disappearance of Madeline ‘Maddie’ McCann in May 2007 was being covered up to the profit of her parents Kate and Gerry McCann.
Part of an online community of “antis” – people who challenge the McCann’s account of Maddie’s disappearance – Leyland frequently posted under the @sweepyface Twitter handle tagging her posts with #mccann. “Antis” distinguish themselves from “pros”, or “pro-mccann” advocates, who believe the McCann’s account of their daughter’s disappearance.
Here, we offer a brief and broad analysis of the content flowing to and from the @sweepyface Twitter account during the entirety of 2014, including the language use and online networks in which @sweepyface operated.
Please note that our analysis does not attempt to validate any claims made by any party with regard to the disappearance of Madeline McCann.
Who is sweepyface?
As presented on analysis of the @sweepyface Twitter account
- Description: researcher
- Location: London/Los Angeles
What was sweepyface talking about?
- Number of tweets sent between Jan-Oct 2014: 2,136
- Tweets by sweepyface which contained the ‘#mccann’ hashtag: 1,992 (93.26% of all tweets in 2014)
- We looked at the most frequent words used by @sweepyface in all the tweets sent during 2014. After cutting out frequent grammatical words (like to, the, is, of, and, etc.) which don’t typically reveal much about content, it was found that the most frequent things talked about were:
- “K & G” – freq 222
- K & G was used as shorthand to refer to Kate and Gerry McCann, Madeline McCann’s mother and father. They were one of the most frequent topics of interest
- ‘Kate’ and ‘Gerry’ also appeared, but less frequently (60 times and 39 times, respectively) and were never referred to using their full names, Kate McCann/Gerry McCann
- ‘Shills’ was the most frequent lexical word used(unlike grammatical/functional words, lexical words have clear semantic meaning – they are word classes like nouns and verbs).
- It was almost unique to sweepyface – it was characteristic of her particular way of framing “pros”
- Shills was used as a catch all term to talk about:
- Those who would express “pro-mccann” opinions – “pros” and “shills” appear to be interchangeable
- those who would opposed the opinions of “antis”
- used as an in-/out-group identifier
- mostly used to question police practices as in the following Tweet from sweepyface:
- “#mccann Rarely a month goes by when our police force are not highlighted as having flawed investigations, PJ is no worse than any other”
- Tweeted the police, as in the following examples:
- mostly used to question police practices as in the following Tweet from sweepyface:
|@metpoliceuk This is becoming farcical Why will you not consider McCanns as suspects, plenty of clues|
|@gracey52marl @metpoliceuk #mccann Not me, I wd like to see Gerrie Nell, prosecute the Mcanns, he wd tear them to shreds|
Who did sweepyface affiliate with and what did they say?
Examined only the top 10 accounts with whom @sweepyface had most interaction with. These accounts were:
|Rank||Account name||# of interactions||Group|
Sweepyface most frequently associated directly with others who were actively engaged in talk about the disappearance of Madeline McCann, whether as a “pro” or as an “anti”. Moreover, contact between these accounts was evident and many more accounts were frequently interacting with sweepyface on the same topic.
[more to follow]
 We argue that ‘troll’ as used by the media is defined too broadly – it captures behaviours from low level insults to rape and death threats – and is thus harmful. We adhere instead to the definition of ‘troll’ given here: http://cass.lancs.ac.uk/?p=621
“Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes” looks at contemporary attitudes to women and whether expressions of sexism and misogyny are on the rise. Dr Claire Hardaker appears roughly halfway through, and discusses whether misogyny becomes increasingly extreme online. During the segment, Hardaker considers the case of Caroline Criado-Perez, and two of her trolls Isabella Sorley, and John Nimmo, as well as some early findings that have come out of the ESRC/CASS project on Twitter rape threats.
The documentary, which stars Kirsty Wark, will be broadcast on BBC2 on the 8th of May at 9:30pm.
Researching online abuse: the case of trolling. Arguably, the biggest technological advancement in recent times is the internet Sadly, however, the internet also presents new opportunities to act maliciously. Increasingly worrying are offensive behaviours such as trolling and cyberbullying that involve individuals, and sometime whole groups, harassing others, sometimes for no other reason than to entertain themselves. Yet research into this subject is in short supply in the social sciences, in spite of there being a real need for it.
New resources will be added regularly to the new CASS: Briefings tab above, so check back soon.
Tuesday 7th January saw John Nimmo and Isabella Sorley plead guilty to sending messages “menacing” in nature to Feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy via multiple Twitter accounts.
In July 2013, Criado-Perez had been successful in campaigning for author Jane Austen to appear on the £10 bank note. Shortly after in final days of July and spilling into August, a torrent of abuse was directed at Criado-Perez including numerous threats to sexually abuse, rape, torture, and kill the campaigner. After lending Criado-Perez support on the social networking site, Creasy was also targeted by abusive users.
The prosecution identified abusive traffic from 86 different Twitter accounts, several of which belonged to the defendants.
The court heard from prosecutor Alison Morgan that Criado-Perez felt “significant fear” due to the menacing nature of the tweets which have had “life changing psychological effects”, Creasy reported that both her personal and professional life were impacted upon by the messages.
Sorley held her face in her hands as the prosecutor read aloud some of her offending tweets, which included;
“You’re wasting shits loads of time because you can’t handle rape threats, pathetic! Rape is the last of your worries!!!!”
“rape?! I’d do a lot worse things than rape you!!”
“I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do, you’re pathetic, kill yourself beforeI i do #godie”
When arrested in October of 2013, Sorley admitted to sending the abusive tweets, saying that she was “bored” and that “I was off my face on drink” at the time, although she accepted that some tweets could be perceived as death threats.
Nimmo, on the other hand was arrested in July of 2013 after having been tracked down by a Newsnight reporter and gave no comment when arrested. His defence claimed that he is a “social recluse” whose “social interaction, social life, is online” as a result of being “systematically bullied at secondary school, both physical and verbal”. As a result of social exclusion, his defence claims, Nimmo has “no social life, no friends, he strives for popularity” and that his “outrageous comments [were] made for retweets”.
Both Sorley and Nimmo plead guilty under Section 127 of the Communications Act (2003) and are to appear before the Westminster Magistrates court later this month.
I travelled to the court to witness the trial as part of work being undertaken as part of a research project on Discourse of Online Misogyny (DOOM) here at CASS. Our initial aim is to investigate the ways in which language was used as part of the threats made against Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy on Twitter. Building on this, we will produce sophisticated analytical tools to provide critical analyses of language and other kinds of behaviours which emerge during instances of online abuse (such as network building).
Claire Hardaker, Lecturer in English Language and Principal Investigator of the DOOM project, appeared on the 07/01/2014 edition of Newsnight.
You can also read a summary of this work in a complimentary CASS: Briefing.
On 17th October 2013 I spent the afternoon at the House of Lords, giving a keynote for the British Federation of Women Graduates (BFWG). Founded in 1907, BFWG has been providing scholarships for women in their final year of degree study since 1912, and it regularly makes awards from its charity to women graduates undertaking postgraduate study and research. BFWG is committed to promoting women’s opportunities in education and public life; fostering local, national, and international friendships; and improving the lives of women and girls worldwide. As such, it was a great honour to be asked by this wonderful organisation to give a keynote at their annual House of Lords seminar, sponsored by Baroness Randerson of Roath Park. Each year the seminar has a theme, and this year’s was, “A woman’s right to know”. The three invited speakers were:
Dr Shuruq Naguib (Lancaster University): “Muslim women: Gender and religious authority”. This talk discussed how women are represented in the Qu’ran and in Islamic thought throughout history.
Sian West (University of Kent): “Restorative justice: Does it work?” This talk considered the benefits of restorative justice and the role of women as victims or perpetrators in the social context in which they find themselves.
Dr Claire Hardaker (Lancaster University): “Meaning and meanness: Disconnecting the online threat from the offline reality”. In this talk, I covered four major areas: (1) What does the term trolling mean? (2) What motivations seem to prompt individuals to troll? (3) How is trolling carried out? And (4) How do those who troll “rationalise” their behaviour? (The slides for this talk can be accessed here.)
My many thanks to BFWG President Jenny Morley, to Vice-President Gabrielle Suff, to The Baroness Randerson, and to all the guests and attendees who made my visit especially warm, friendly, and hospitable. (Pictures of the seminar and lunch can be found here.)
In August I was invited to visit the Office of Communications (OFCOM) Southwark Bridge Road headquarters beside the Thames, to give a talk as part of Inside OFCOM – a series that has been presented at by such notable figures as Tim Wu, Vint Cerf, and Robert Peston, to name but a few! My remit was essentially an introductory talk about the online behaviour known as trolling. In the talk, we covered six major areas:
- Definitions: given its rapidly changing nature, what does this word, “trolling” actually mean?
- Facilitators, motives/triggers: what makes people feel like they can get away with this kind of behaviour? And what encourages them into behaving this way?
- Strategies, logistics, networks: how is trolling carried out? What networks do individuals who troll form?
- Self-protection: how do individuals who want to “misbehave” online go about protecting themselves from the consequences of that behaviour?
- Legislation, policy: what legislation and policy currently exists that deals with this behaviour, and how useful, up-to-date, and comprehensive is it?
- Ways forwards: what are the long-term, future ways of dealing with this behaviour?
The question-and-answer session after talk presented an excellent opportunity to discuss the current issues in managing online behaviour. It was especially helpful to be able to talk these aspects over with individuals and specialists actively working across a range of communicative environments (e.g. television, press, etc.) and who may, in the future, be called on to work with online communication too. In particular, there was a great moment of relief (for me!) when asked about the shortfall between media reportage of trolling, which tends to focus on only the most extreme, clear-cut cases, and the actual majority of real-world cases which tend not to be so clear cut. For instance, one issue that OFCOM itself regularly deals with is that hugely difficult grey area between freedom of expression and responsibility of expression, such as in extremely provocative press articles that cause widespread offence, and this exactly mirrors the same concerns found in regulating (or not) online interaction.
Overall, I look forward with great interest to the governmental developments in how to manage this particular area, and would like to extend my sincerest thanks to OFCOM for inviting me and being especially warm and welcoming hosts.
Post-event review of the one-day workshop at Lancaster University
Topics don’t come much hotter than the forms of impoliteness or aggression that are associated with digital communication – flaming, trolling, cyberbullying, and so on. Yet academia has done surprisingly little to pull together experts in social interaction (especially (im)politeness) and experts in the new media, let alone experts in corpus-related work. That is, until last Friday, when the Corpus Approaches to Social Science Centre (@CorpusSocialSci) invited fifteen such people from diverse backgrounds (from law to psychology) gathered together for an intense one-day workshop.
The scope of the workshop was broad. One cannot very well study impoliteness without considering politeness, since merely failing to be polite in a particular context could be taken as impoliteness. Similarly, the range of digital communication types – email, blogs, texts, tweets and so on – presents a varied terrain to navigate. And then there are plenty of corpus-related approaches and notions, including collocation, keywords, word sketches, etc.
Andrew Kehoe (@ayjaykay), Ursula Lutzky (@UrsulaLutzky) and Matt Gee (@mattbgee) kicked off the day with a talk on swearwords and swearing, based on their 628-million-word Birmingham Blog Corpus. Amongst other things, they showed how internet swearword/profanity filters would work rather better if they incorporated notions like collocation. For example, knowing the words that typically accompany items like balls and tart can help disambiguate neutral usages (e.g. “tennis balls”, “lemon tart”) from less salubrious usages! (See more research from Andrew here, from Ursula here, and from Matt here.)
With Ruth Page’s (@ruthtweetpage) presentation, came a switch from blogs to Twitter. Using corpus-related techniques, Ruth revealed the characteristics of corporate tweets. Given that the word sorry turns out to be the seventh most characteristic or keyword for corporate tweets, it was not surprising that Ruth focused on apologies. She reveals that corporate tweets tend to avoid stating a problem or giving an explanation (thus avoiding damage to their reputation), but are accompanied by offers of repair and attempts to build – at least superficially – rapport. (See more research from Ruth here.)
Last of the morning was Caroline Tagg’s (@carotagg) presentation, and with this came another shift in medium, from Twitter to text messages. Focusing on convention and creativity, Caroline pointed out that, contrary to popular opinion, heavily abbreviated messages are not in fact the norm, and that when abbreviations do occur, they are often driven by communicative needs, e.g. using creativity to foster interest and engagement. Surveying the functions of texts, Caroline established that maintenance of friendship is key. And corpus-related techniques revealed the supporting evidence: politeness formulae were particularly frequent, including the salutation have a good one, the hedge a bit for the invitation, and for further contact, give us a bell. (See more research from Caroline here.)
With participants refuelled by lunch, Claire Hardaker (@DrClaireH) and I presented a smorgasbord of relevant issues. As an opening shot, we displayed frequencies showing that the stereotypical emblems of British politeness, words such as please, thank you, sorry, excuse me, can you X, tend not to be frequent in any digital media variety, relative to spoken conversation (as represented in the British National Corpus). Perhaps this accounts for why at least some sectors of the British public find digital media barren of politeness. This is not to say that politeness does not take place, but it seems to take place through different means – consider the list of politeness items derived by Caroline above. And there was an exception: sorry was the only item that occurred with greater frequency in some digital media. This, of course, nicely ties in with Ruth’s focus on apologies. The bulk of my and Clare’s presentation revolved around using corpus techniques to help establish: (1) definitions (e.g. what is trolling?), (2) strategies and formulae (e.g. what is the linguistic substance of trolling?) and (3) evaluations (e.g. what or who is considered rude?). Importantly, we showed that corpus-related approaches are not just lists of numbers, but can integrate qualitative analyses. (See more research from me here, and from Claire here.)
With encroaching presentation fatigue, the group decamped and went to at a computer lab. Paul Rayson (@perayson) introduced some corpus tools, notably WMatrix, of which he is the architect. Amanda Potts (@watchedpotts) then put everybody through their paces – gently of course! – giving everybody the opportunity of valuable hands-on experience.
Back in our discussion room and refreshed by various caffeinated beverages, we spent an hour reflecting on a range of issues. The conversation moved towards corpora that include annotations (interpretative information). Such annotations could be a way of helping to analyse images, context, etc., creating an incredibly rich dataset that could only be interrogated by computer (see here, for instance). I noted that this end of corpus work was not far removed from using Atlas or Nudist. Snapchat came up in discussion, not only because it involves images (though they can include text), but also because it raises issues of data accessibility (how do you get hold of a record of this communication, if one of its essential features is that it dissolves within a narrow timeframe?). The thorny problem of ethics was discussed (e.g. data being used in ways that were not signaled when original user agreements were completed).
Though exhausting, it was a hugely rewarding and enjoyable day. Often those rewards came in the form of vibrant contributions from each and every participant. Darren Reed, for example, pointed out that sometimes what we were dealing with is neither digital text nor digital image, but a digital act. Retweeting somebody, for example, could be taken as a “tweet act” with politeness implications.
My research focuses on online aggression, deception, and manipulation. For the past few years I’ve focussed quite closely on the behaviour known as “trolling” (though notably now this term is being used to refer to an increasing scope of behaviours that could be more accurately termed cyberbullying, cyberharassment, and cyberstalking). My plans with regards to this particular area involve finishing the third paper in what has affectionately come to be known as the “trolling trilogy” (or worse, the “trollogy”). This started with the 2010 paper which tackled the question, “what is trolling?” and continued with the 2013 paper which went on to investigate, “how is trolling carried out?” The third paper will discuss, “how do people respond (to trolling)?” Within this area of my research, I am also working on a monograph purely about trolling.
In the near future, I am moving towards doing more research into the manipulation aspect of online behaviour. This includes working with online grooming data in collaboration with undercover police forces, in order to identify the strategies of manipulation that child sex offenders use to groom children online, and to relate these to the ways that those individuals respond to police questioning. This also involves looking more broadly at what might be described as trust-fraud behaviours, such as Munchausen-by-internet (where individuals masquerade as sufferers of illness to acquire attention, sympathy, money, etc.), and online predation (where individuals gain a target’s trust online in order to meet them offline with the intention of offending against them in some way, e.g. theft, rape, murder).
Recent news associated with this project:
- Turning the tables on the stalkers (19 November 2014)
On 13th November, I presented a talk at a joint Paladin/Collyer-Bristow event. Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, assists high risk victims of stalking throughout England and Wales. Collyer Bristow’s Cyber Investigation Unit (CIU), which is headed up by partner Rhory Robertson, comprises a dedicated team of lawyers who advise victims of cyberstalking, cyber harassment, cyber bullying and internet trolls/trolling. The major discussion ...
- Sweepyface: a linguistic profile (6 October 2014)
This morning brought news of the suicide of a media-branded ‘troll’. Brenda Leyland, the 63 year-old woman behind the @sweepyface Twitter account, a self-proclaimed “researcher” and “anti-McCann” advocate was found dead at a Marriott hotel on Saturday 4th October in Leicester. She was recently contacted by a reporter at Sky News regarding her Twitter activity ...
- An afternoon with OFCOM (11 October 2013)
In August I was invited to visit the Office of Communications (OFCOM) Southwark Bridge Road headquarters beside the Thames, to give a talk as part of Inside OFCOM – a series that has been presented at by such notable figures as Tim Wu, Vint Cerf, and Robert Peston, to name but a few! My remit ...
- Writing for the press: the deleted scenes (12 August 2013)
In late July and early August 2013, the stories of Caroline Criado-Perez, the bomb threats, and latterly, the horrific tragedy of Hannah Smith broke across the media, and as a result, the behaviour supposedly known as “trolling” was pitched squarely into the limelight. There was the inevitable flurry of dissections, analyses, and opinion pieces, and ...
- Web of words: A short history of the troll (15 July 2013)
Over the past fortnight, various broadsheets and media outlets (see bibliography) picked up the story of my recent article, ‘“Uh…..not to be nitpicky,,,,,but…the past tense of drag is dragged, not drug.”: An overview of trolling strategies‘ (2013), which came out in the Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict. Of the thousands of comments collectively posted ...
- Dr Claire Hardaker takes part in Houses of Parliament Debate asking “Does the Punishment of Trolls Infringe on an Individual’s Freedom of Speech?” (20 June 2013)
Yesterday, Dr Claire Hardaker (Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University) took part in a ministerial debate hosted by Steve Rotheram MP at the Houses of Parliament. Dr Hardaker specialises in linguistic aggression, deception, and manipulation, particularly online, and looks at behaviours such as flaming, trolling, cyberbullying, and online grooming. The roundtable, entitled, “Does the ...
In late July and early August 2013, the stories of Caroline Criado-Perez, the bomb threats, and latterly, the horrific tragedy of Hannah Smith broke across the media, and as a result, the behaviour supposedly known as “trolling” was pitched squarely into the limelight. There was the inevitable flurry of dissections, analyses, and opinion pieces, and no doubt like any number of academics in similar lines of work, I was asked to write various articles on this behaviour. Some I turned down for different reasons, but one that I accepted was for the Observer. (Here’s the final version that came out in both the Observer and the Guardian.)
Like the majority of people, I have been mostly in the dark about how the media works behind the scenes. That said, throughout my time at university, I have studied areas like Critical Discourse Analysis and the language of the media, and over the past three years, my work has been picked up a few times in small ways by the media, so I probably had a better idea than many. I realise now, however, that even with this prior knowledge, I was still pretty naive about the process. I wasn’t too surprised, then, when I got a number of comments on the Observer article raising exactly the sorts of questions I too would have asked before I’d gone through what I can only describe as a steep media learning curve. There were, essentially, three main issues that kept recurring:
(1) Why didn’t you talk about [insert related issue here]? This other thing is also important!
(2) Why didn’t you define trolling properly? This isn’t what I’d call trolling!
(3) Why did you only mention the negative types of trolling? There are good kinds too!
All three questions are interrelated in various ways, but I’ve artificially separated them out because each gives me a chance to explain something that I’ve learned about what happens behind the scenes during the process of producing media content.