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Twitter trolls show us nothing whatsoever about Corbynites

Corbyn at PMQsOne of the strangest things about Jeremy Corbyn’s ascension to the leadership is that nobody’s quite clear as to who the people are who made it happen. Many commentators have made lazy and inaccurate assumptions about the class backgrounds of the new recruits, and the prevalence of hardened Left activists has been greatly overstated. There is a vague acceptance on all sides that a lot of them are young (the Left finds this encouraging; the Right, inexpressibly disgusting). Of course, they’re more likely than most to identify as “Leftwing”. Beyond that, observers have found fairly little to agree upon.

If we’ve been relatively starved of definitive research on the exact demographics of Corbyn supporters, what we have had is plenty of minutely detailed psychoanalyses of the man and his supporters. Helen Lewis kicked this off in a New Statesman piece last July, diagnosing support for Corbyn as an example of what some commentators call “virtue signalling”. Allister Heath at the Telegraph told us to “get off Twitter and read a book instead.” And more recently Marina Hyde, in a typically acerbic Guardian column, branded Corbyn’s backers (or “Corbynistas” – who, after all, would rather be associated with revolutionary Leftists than with murderous narcoterrorists?) as being vitriolic tribalists driven by “an innate confidence allied to a blithe anti-intellectualism”.

Not only is Corbyn’s policy platform to be ignored in favour of things that individuals on Twitter have said, but apparently the whole moral tone of his leadership is to be judged on that basis too. During the campaign, emotional stories wafted across the media regarding the poor, benighted MPs and Labour Party politicos who were being referred to as “Tories” or “sell-outs” by some excitable teenager or other. There were also some serious cases of online abuse, much of it racist and some of it even violent. Despite calls for civility being one of the main planks of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, he was somehow blamed for his failure to isolate and condemn each individual case, perhaps most notably by the Conservative MP Louise Mensch, whose grasp of social media, religion, Israeli-Palestinian history and general ethics is a tad underwhelming.

We have to learn to stop taking wild-eyed Twitter trolls as being really representative of anything. Yes, some of the abuse lobbed around online is horrible – it’s a reminder that misogyny and racism, including anti-Semitism, are still a part of our natural discourse, and that we have to keep scrubbing at these cultural stains.

But as to the vast majority of the madness online, the providence of it is almost impossible to divine. After all, there is fury online directed at literally everything. There are people who worry out loud that Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri, who is of Indian descent, is “a Arab”, commenting: “Well done Al-Qaeda, our Miss America is one of you.” There are people who send death threats and rape threats to benign, apolitical light entertainment figures. There are people who launch violent tirades at cheesecake factories.

One noteworthy truth that Marina Hyde’s piece did get at is that this is not the first time we’ve seen a political leader whip up a buzz of fiercely protective social media hornets. Ukip’s supporters, the “cyberkippers”, are notoriously rude and aggressive online, heaping hysterical abuse on journalists who so much as dare to write their party name as an acronym (Ukip) rather than as an initialism (UKIP). And who can forget the “cybernats”? During the Scottish referendum campaign it became near-impossible for anybody, no matter how unimpeachably Scottish they were, to tweet vaguely doubtful things about the SNP and the Yes campaign without being assailed by mobs; indeed, this was occasionally replicated in real life.

What Corbyn, the SNP and Ukip all have in common is that their supporters genuinely believe in them. Of course David Cameron’s supporters don’t set out to troll their opponents – as is the case with most UK politicians, his supporters see him as the best of a bad bunch. Corbyn is a different thing altogether. His leadership campaign inspired genuine enthusiasm in hundreds of thousands of people across the country, including many people who had felt chronically disengaged from the political process. Any genuine movement will always have a fringe; people who tell young people, or Corbyn supporters generally, to get off social media should take their own advice and come along in person to meet the thousands of friendly, good-natured people across the country who think that Corbyn talks sense.

The Internet is a fathomless ocean of shrill abuse and wild hyperbole. Some of the people responsible are unhinged; some are even quite nasty bits of work. But they have nothing to tell us about Jeremy Corbyn, or even about his supporters. Let’s see Twitter as what it is: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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