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Notes on the Mail on Sunday and Some “Appallingly Abusive Tweets”

A headline at the Mail on Sunday tells us what to think:

Repellent cowards: Left-wing writer and teacher at a top girls’ school target Michael Gove’s family with appallingly abusive tweets

Politicians, of course, receive a great deal of uncivil commentary on social media, but some instances are deemed more significant by tabloid journalists than others. In this instance, Gove is a politician that the paper supports, but more to the point is that Gove’s wife Sarah Vine is a commentator with the Daily Mail, sister paper to the MoS. Thus “vile trolls” must be shamed before the nation as a matter of revenge.

The story starts reasonably enough with the case of Andy Dawson, a man who has received a police caution for Tweeting at Vine that he would like to physically assault Gove in front of his family. The story is newsworthy both in itself, and also because Dawson is a public figure – he hosts a podcast with Bob Mortimer, and he has written for the Daily Mirror and the Guardian (three old commentary pieces for the latter paper – enough to make him a “Guardian journalist” according to the MoS). It was a malicious joke made in anger rather than a credible threat, but it crossed the line.

However, the paper then introduces someone else:

Elsewhere on Twitter, a teacher at a girls’ secondary school discussed the Goves’ 17-year-old daughter ‘like a piece of meat’ while targeting her parents with vile abuse.

Alom Shaha, a physics teacher at Camden School for Girls in London, said the 17-year-old should ‘actively campaign against’ her father before accusing Mr Gove and his wife of supporting fascism.

Mr Shaha said in his tweet: ‘I would love to see a f****** 12-year-old of one of these b******s leave home and claim asylum saying they don’t want to live with fascists.’

Shaha in fact wrote several Tweets, responding to a clip of Helen Whately MP on Question Time:

I’d like to see the children of these people, if they have them, denounce them. Although perhaps their children are also of the same bent… Mic says Gove’s daughter distances herself from him on TikTok. She should go further and actively campaign against him.

Shaha also said that he was “shocked that any self respecting teenage offspring of these bastards doesn’t publicly shame them”, adding that “I can only conclude they are as awful as their parents.”

In my view, teachers ought to conduct themselves on social media with a bit more dignity than this, but this was a general rant that was brought to Vine’s attention by third parties. Shaha has a blue tick, but I’m not convinced this was a matter of national public interest, and I doubt it would have passed muster without being tagged onto end of the Dawson story. It’s also excessive and vicious to characterise this as discussing the daughter “like a piece of meat”, which is Vine’s allegation – such a phrase implies degradation, and has sexual overtones.

The story continues:

In both cases Ms Vine… tackled the trolls head on.

She also took on a third, who claimed in an exchange with Shaha that the Goves’ daughter ‘distances’ herself from her father on TikTok.

And here’s where the victim narrative falls apart. The alleged “third” troll has identified himself as Mic Wright, and the reason he’s not named is because he told article’s author, Nick Constable, that he would take action against unless he was given right of reply. That right of reply would have required Constable having the explain how exactly Vine was supposedly “tackling the trolls” – which was by dropping a paedo-smear. As Vine wrote:

I see that ⁦@brokenbottleboy⁩ describes himself as ‘100 per cent deviant’ which perhaps explains why he likes to obsess about teenage girls with teachers like ⁦@alomshaha.

This, of course, was open season for a pile-on by actual trolls, who obliged Vine by sending goading paedo-themed abuse.

But all Mic had done was to make a joke about that Gove’s daughter is “distanced” from her parents, inspired by a light-hearted Tatler article mentioning how she was in self-isolation over suspected Covid-19. Mic’s commentary on this was to suggest she might rebel in the future “given time” – a reasonable possibility given some other details mentioned in the article. This is the sort of thing we might imagine Ian Hislop saying on Have I Got News For You, where it would be received as witty snark rather than the “appallingly abusive” outpourings of a “repellent coward”.

Rather than provide readers with a full account that would have undermined the perennial “vile trolls target public figure” tabloid trope, the article’s author resorted to vagueness. I would argue that this is suggestive of bad faith.

UPDATE (2 June): Taking their cue from Vine and the Mail on Sunday, a couple of other conservative commentators have now joined in on Twitter. First up, Lydia Suffield, a young freelance writer for the Telegraph, made the false claim that Mic had “joined in with mocking and potentially violating the privacy of a Cabinet minister’s teenage child”; and when Mic politely remonstrated with “Now you know what you said is untrue, I presume you’ll delete this, Lydia”, a Conservative (unless he’s still suspended) Essex County Councillor named Stephen Canning then interjected with “Mic you really should leave the young female children of MPs alone and stop trying to intimidate young women on twitter, it ain’t a good look.”

This is of course a bad-faith strategy by which bad actors work together to establish a reputation-destroying smear as “common knowledge” about a target. Were it not for Canning’s blue tick and Suffield’s meeja profile this would be instantly recognisable as “vile abuse” by “trolls”.

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