Citizen journalism, trolls, and international terrorism

IMG_5302On Saturday, I had my first encounter with the world of Internet trolls. It was only a small skirmish, but it taught me a lot about some of the darker aspects of the internet. I now have a much greater understanding of the devastating impact that trolling can have on people, particularly in terms of personal abuse.

But there were many good things about yesterday as well, not least my first foray into “citizen journalism”.  I arrived at Gatwick North, all ready to go away for a few days holiday.  Little did I know then that I would not be going on holiday, and I would be leaving the airport to go home again some eight hours later! As we drew up to Level One check-in, airport security staff were rapidly closing the entrances and preventing anyone from entering.  As swiftly became clear, a major terrorist alert was just beginning, that would lead eventually to a 41 year old French man being arrested.

I often post tweets, particularly at conferences and when I find something that I think might be of interest to other people.  So, IMG_5310at 09.49 a.m. I posted the above picture, and then as things began to develop, I gradually began to post further images and comments, so that those arriving at the airport might be aware of the situation.  Surprisingly, it seems that rather few other people were recording the incident, and quite swiftly a number of journalists began to get in touch, and encouraged me to provide them with information, and share further details through my tweets.  It swiftly became evident that the North Terminal was locked down, and so I was one of the few people with whom the outside world could communicate to gather first hand information and imagery.  I felt very strongly as the day developed that I should let the images speak for themselves, and just provide information as I became aware of it, rather than giving personal interpretations or conjectures as to what might be happening.

This made me very aware of the power of citizen journalism, and the way in which individuals can contribute to the wider international making of news.  Never having been involved in a similar situation before, it was fascinating fielding the flow of requests from journalists, until the flood became far too great to deal with and I had to stop taking calls if I was to record what was actually happening.  There were so many fascinating aspects about this, not least the ways in which journalists (and others) tried to get in touch, either by tweeting their phone numbers, or asking to be made friends so that we could “direct message” each other.  Given how reluctant I usually am to share my phone number, this caused some interesting discussions, but I was surprised at how willing journalists were to share their numbers in an environment as open as Twitter.

IMG_5319I posted 53 tweets during the day, and it was fascinating seeing the impact that these had, not only on national and international news media (see, for example, CNN and the BBC), but also for many individuals who got in touch to thank me for the information that I was sharing.  However, I had never expected the darker side of what might happen – and herein lies a warning for other citizen journalists.

Quite swiftly, those who were locked in and not permitted to leave the terminal vicinity were moved down the ramp to huddle in the drizzle under nearby bus shelters.  They were then eventually moved to Jubilee House, where some limited refreshments were made available, and people could escape from the damp and cold.  At about 11.40 a.m., however, people were evacuated again out into the rain for the walk to the Sofitel, where most arrived before 12.00 mid-day, and were to stay until just before 4 p.m.  Whilst in the airport itself, we were kept reasonable well informed, but once we arrived in the Sofitel very little information was provided, and we seemed very much to be left at the mercy of the Sofitel staff.  I had rather naively assumed that emergency routines had frequently been practised for this scenario, and therefore that the Sofitel would indeed be prepared for a large influx of tired, frustrated, damp, hungry and thirsty people, but cannot help but think in hindsight that this was probably not the case.  The Sofitel seemed completely unprepared for us, and not only was there little information, but there was also very little refreshment available unless you were willing to pay very expensive prices and queue in long slow queues.  To be sure, there was a large influx of people (between 500 and 1000), but I remain surprised at how poorly treated most of the evacuees were.

Interestingly, I did not tweet many negative comments at all about this, but one tweet was picked up by a crowd of people who became highly critical and abusive of me.  At 12.40 I tweeted “Have to say staff at Gatwick Sofitel serving tea/coffee are doing an appalling job – queue does not move. Management please do something”, and this precipitated a torrent of unbelievable abuse.  i tried hard to resist the temptation to respond to the abuse then and there on Twitter, which I am sure would only have exacerbated the situation more, and just blocked the abusive messages, but new people kept re-tweeting negative messages already posted by others!

IMG_5325I very much stand by what I wrote!  There were four staff “serving” in the café area at the edge of the Sofitel lobby, and it took more than 30 minutes for them to serve ten people standing in the queue.  All of the tables in the café were full, and those in the queue just wanted any refreshment that they could get to take away.  There appeared to be no other outlets, and no-one was offering the evacuated passengers any food or drink – free or otherwise.  To make matters worse,

  • the staff showed no sign of hurry or interest in the plight of the passengers;
  • they spent more time just chatting with each other, rather than trying to serve customers;
  • one dropped a whole jug of milk on the floor and took a long time clearing it up;
  • they seemed to have considerable problems working out how much change to give customers paying with cash;
  • payment via card took ages; and
  • perhaps the ultimate annoyance was the cost: £8.89 for one tea and one coffee!

I was amazed at the abuse I received on Twitter, and just want to rebut some of the comments here! I guess there were seven main types of criticism (many were much more abusive than the comments I post below, but I prefer not to use the language in them on my blog!):

  • I was a complete [insert numerous body parts] for complaining
    • gratuitously unpleasant – just cannot understand why people want to be unpleasant like this, deliberately seeking to be nasty to someone they don’t know
  • Being grateful for our situation: “Better being tired and hungry than the unthinkable! People should be grateful they are safe” and “so you had to wait in the warm whilst the police dealt with a serious incident?! Get a grip!!!”
    • fair enough, but I was just pointing out the situation, and imploring management to do something about it
    • people were indeed very grateful that they were safe (and I had tweeted positive sentiments about this), but the lack of preparation and co-ordination was surprising
    • well, passengers had been out in the damp and cold before going into the Sofitel, and they were very grateful to the police
  • I should not be complaining, especially after the dreadful incidents in Paris the previous night (polite versions of this were: “Time for a bit of persepctive considering what happened to our neighbours yesterday evening, perhaps?” and “this really grinds my gears. Would u rather have been blown 2 smithereens. People in Paris would love 2 swap places “)
    • what happened in Paris was clearly dreadful, and earlier in the day I had already tweeted my thoughts about this, expressing solidarity with my French friends (as I do frequently when there are incidents elsewhere in the world)
    • this highlights that trolls focus on just one or two tweets, and do not know the full context of the person about whom they are being abusive
  • A range of comments along the lines that I should be in the terminal with the terrorist (“I take it you’d rather be back in the airport with a gunman?”), or should be killed by a terrorist for writing such things
    • I was just shocked to get such comments – which were actually very hurtful.  I can only imagine how horrible it must be for someone to have a sustained barrage of hate-tweets over a long period
  • I should offer to help serve tea and coffee – implying that I was not willing to do so: “I can’t even fathom how you can be so ungrateful in a time like this. If you’re so concerned get off your phone and go help them”
    • Well, I did offer to help, but you can imagine the response I got – yes, no way would they let me!
  • I was from a spoilt and privileged background, and I should focus my attention on more important things (a polite version: “Gatwick is on lockdown because of a potential terror attack but the coffee is the main problem”)
    • Yes, I do come from a privileged background, but I have spent much of my life focusing on major issues of development, as far as possible from a critical and empowering perspective
    • And I never, ever said “coffee was the main problem” – using “coffee” was in any case shorthand for tea/coffee/water/sandwiches etc. – any kind of food and drink!  Passengers had been “evacuated” in total for six and a half hours that day, and many had not had food or drink because they were hoping to have breakfast/lunch at the terminal
  • I was milking the situation for my own personal gain, by checking with news media who wanted to use my pictures that they would credit me with the images
    • this is a tricky one – I certainly had no intention of having any personal gain, and thought I was doing a service by providing imagery (which was indeed what most people said, and I had some lovely comments thanking me)
    • Most media journalists simply asked if they could use my images saying that they would credit me – my replies were usually just affirming this
    • I have been long involved in debates over Open information, and particularly Open Educational Resources, and years ago like to think I was was at the leading edge (certainly in my own university) about making all of my courses freely available.  I do not even use Creative Commons licensing, because I see that as a constraint!  I just believe (as an academic only too aware of being plagiarised) that credit should be given to the originators of ideas, words and images.

IMG_5322It was the personalising of much of the negative commentary that hurt – I though that I was just observing and sharing information that I saw.  People in the queue for any kind of refreshment were indeed getting very frustrated, and I felt that my own comment trying to capture this was actually quite mild!  It was therefore so, so nice to receive kind messages thanking me for what I was doing – if I hadn’t received such messages I would certainly have stopped tweeting once the abuse had started.  As one kind person wrote, “thanks for all your updates. It’s a shame that some are being rude to you. If it wasn’t for people like you, we’d be in the dark”.

There are many lessons about trolling (even in the relatively mild form I received) to be drawn from this experience, and in concluding I highlight just seven lessons I drew from the experience:

  • Just a single tweet can set off a torrent of abuse, especially when your tweets are going viral – trolls do not care about your previous tweets, or anything about you
  • You have to be tough skinned to deal with such abuse
  • Blocking people who send you abuse as soon as possible can help reduce the impact, but be prepared for others to keep retweeting their originally offensive tweets
  • Certainly in my case the level of abuse increased over time, almost as if people were trying to be more offensive than the people whose abusive comments they were retweeting
  • It is important not to reply to those sending unpleasant tweets – initially I did try to defend myself, but that made matters worse, until I remembered this advice from things I had read previously about trolling
  • It is so nice to receive positive comments, because they help to put things in balance.  I was very grateful for this comment “respect to you for keeping people informed and not spreading mindless crap. Someone buy this man a beer!”.  Sadly I never got a beer!
  • All tweeting is very much “in the present” and so the abuse will usually stop after a couple of days. That was my experience of what I know was low-level trolling, but I can only imagine the really deeply unpleasant effects that long term digital abuse must have.  Clearly, the only situation in such circumstances must be to change one’s digital identity, or even go offline completely for a period of time.

There was, of course, some irony in this scenario: it turned out that this was not a major terrorist incident after all, and that the man was eventually only charged with having an air rifle and a knife.  Only a relatively few (perhaps a thousand at most) were affected, since those who were not caught up in the incident as it happened were redirected to the South Terminal.  All in all, I was at Gatwick for some eight hours, and am now rebooked on a flight later in the week.  Am very much looking forward to a holiday!  However, I learnt a great deal about citizen journalism and trolls!



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5 responses to “Citizen journalism, trolls, and international terrorism

  1. Hi Tim,
    Thanks for sharing with us (on twitter what was going on) and now.

    I followed your tweets for a few times, to check if everything was ok with you and then saw that you were going home. I never thought that your informative tweets would create this kind of troll environment. Glad that you and everybody were safe that day.



    • unwin

      Thanks so much Paula – yes, it was a very mixed day. Comments like your one are very “healing” – thanks again

      Hope all is good with you


  2. lenandlar

    That’s the very dark side of the world on the Internet. Sometimes I wonder if those people would actually do the same face to face or is it the freedom to type that leads to this form of abuse.

  3. Hi Tim. this is my first reading of your blog. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Hi Tim. Everything is fine! And I am glad to be able to continue following you on twitter.
    Going crazy with the PhD thesis! 😉 Part of the process…

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