No internet trolls in this wood

woodsTHE information super highway never seems so super when the best use people can think for it is to sling abuse and, worst still, make ugly threats. It was bad enough when Camden Labour’s Lucy Reese went on Newsnight last year to talk about academies and free schools and in return received the tasteless feedback that she was “quite bummable”. That almost seems quite low key in the context of the last week, and a woman receiving 50 rape threats an hour.

Certainly, it must take a furious head to see somebody like Caroline Criado-Perez campaigning for a woman to be on a bank note and decide the most appropriate response is… well, you know the rest. It was beyond trolling and Camden councillors were in the thick of the defence last weekend, apparently, urging the borough’s most senior ranked officers to realise a local campaigner’s case needed a serious response.

Yet before you give up hope on the internet and social media, there was a little note of mitigation for what Twitter and co might be able to achieve, if harnessed in the right way, last Friday too. A disclaimer first: the following is not saying we should just accept taking the bad with the good on the internet, accept rape threats in exchange for heart-warming stories of community affection. No, needless to say, we want the good with the good. But on Friday evening, something happened that at least meant you could see how neighbours in north London who don’t know each other, who pass each on escalators every day of the week without a glimmer of recognition, can be brought together. There was a tiny bit of reassurance that we’re not all just dispirit, lost individuals with frowns and laptops.

You see, a nine year-old girl had gone missing in Highgate Woods this time last week, disappearing after leaving her mother to meet a friend. She didn’t reach her friend and the hours passed. Police were getting nowhere and the sun was beginning to fall.

Maybe Scotland Yard would disagree, but as a domino-fall relay of tweets about the missing girl were posted online, it was almost as if police felt pressured into releasing a full-on appeal, which meant newspapers, websites and even Sky News flashed her picture across the wires. It wasn’t longer than 30 minutes after that appeal had been circulated that the girl was finally located by a passer-by. I’m no expert in how police conduct missing persons searches – there are obviously some reasons not to move towards publicity – but the swift exchange of messages and the attention that it brought, on the face of it at least, seemed a good thing.

More warmth came on the ground. Not only had a newly linked community – crossing Haringey, Islington, Camden, and beyond –run its own appeal for help online, at the woods a volunteer search party had arrived with torches.

Again, there is room here for police to be unwittingly hindered by well-meaning do-gooders if we all dive in, but the idea that people with no link to the girl’s relatives and with nothing more than a desire to help, turned up at the woods at 10 o’clock on a Friday evening is surely something to value. Dismiss these helpers as nutty in their own way from your sofa, but – statement of the obvious incoming – their use of the internet is more appreciated than those informing the world how “bummable” women on current affairs show are. 



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