Ed Sheeran quits Twitter: the trolls win again

When multi-award-winning singer Ed Sheeran recently stood centre stage as a headliner at Glastonbury Festival, he found a sea of love staring right back him. However, when he’s face to face with his Twitter feed, it’s a very different story.

“I’ve actually come off Twitter completely,” said Sheeran in a recent interview with The Sun. “I can’t read it. I go on it and there’s nothing but people saying mean things.”

The list of celebrities who have either taken a break or have been driven off Twitter altogether is long, and it includes such luminaries as Adele, Sinead O’Connor, Matt Lucas and Stephen Fry. Even Zelda Williams, daughter of the late Robin Williams, received a barrage of hateful comments after her father committed suicide. Does it get much lower than that?

While Ed’s Twitter account will remain active for PR purposes, he’ll no longer be reading it. We think it’s a good time to ask, what is it about Twitter that lends itself to being such a playground for trolls?

Facebook versus Twitter

Back in the day, when Twitter was the new kid on the block, it was basically the antithesis to Facebook. Facebook was inward looking, about connecting with people you already knew, while Twitter was outward looking and all about building new connections.

By its very nature, Twitter is a networking platform, a place to rub shoulders with people you’re never likely to meet in real life. Hashtags make it possible to converse with strangers without following each other, passing by like ships in the night. Unlike Facebook with its complex privacy settings and layers of friendship connections, Twitter is inherently open. Anyone can read anything you write.

In short, Twitter puts you on a shelf for the whole world to see.

Twitter is riskier. You have less control over it. If you’re small and you don’t rock the boat, you can fly under the radar without too many problems. But if you’re already famous, it’s easier to find yourself a target. If someone posts something offensive on your wall on Facebook, you can delete the comment and ban them from your community. If the same thing happens on Twitter, there’s very little you can do about it. You can block them from your own feed, but everyone else can still see what they’ve written. It’s unlikely Twitter’s staff will step in to remove or block them, unless it goes against the site’s community rules. And there’s nothing stopping trolls who have been blocked from just starting a new account and harassing you again.

Twitter is like a sociology experiment that’s starting to turn sour.

Is Twitter without trolls even possible?

I often wonder whether celebrities google themselves, or read the tweets that come into their feed. When I had the chance to interview Kylie Minogue back in 2010, I asked her that very question, and it turns out that she does manage her own Twitter account, and has even googled herself in the past… but she described it as “a dangerous thing to do”. As for comments on online articles, she refuses to read those, describing the chatter as “disheartening”.

Of course, that was seven years ago, back when celebrities on Twitter were enjoying this shiny new toy. Just a few years after we spoke, Kylie found herself receiving death threats from a “deluded weirdo” on social media. Even the Australian Federal Police had to step in.

British pop singer Jessie J has had similar experiences. “One guy literally sent me ‘I want you to die’ 150 times,” she said in an interview back in 2013. In 2014, Australian TV personality Charlotte Dawson committed suicide after being trolled relentlessly on Twitter. After hours of defending herself against the onslaught, she sent a tweet at 2.07am which read: ‘you win x’. Attached was a photo of her hand holding some tablets. ‘Hope this ends the misery,’ she added.

Fast forward a few years later and has anything really changed? Governments may be handing down stronger directives to social media companies regarding the swift removal of hate speech, but fundamentally Twitter and trolls still seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps it’s not possible to have one without the other?

So, why do trolls troll?

Recent research conducted by the School of Health Science and Psychology at Federation University in Mount Helen set out to discover what makes trolls tick. They found that trolls exhibit high amounts of cognitive empathy, as well as psychopathy. In short, they’re very astute at understanding other people’s emotions, but they also don’t care about how the other person feels. They know how to push the right buttons and they don’t internalise or take onboard the emotional experience that they’ve put the other person through. It’s a nasty combination.

Psychopathy also has connections to being impulsive and seeking thrills, which suggests that many trolls do what they do because they enjoy creating mayhem. The research also found that trolls are more likely to be male.

Researchers hope that studies like this will make it easier to identify potential trolls before they act out, and hopefully intervene in a positive way, to steer them on the right path.

It’s a very nice ideal. But in the meantime, it looks like the trolls have won this round. Take care Ed!


Christian Taylor is a writer and digital marketer and a member of the VKN Digital team. VKN Digital is a digital marketing agency in Hertfordshire, UK. We aim to help SMEs overcome marketing hurdles and create compelling digital content that drives results. Need help creating and launching a native advertising campaign? How about assistance with SEO or social media? Please contact us for a free Skype consultation.

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