Don’t underestimate the pain that can be caused by a few words on a screen. Until I received aggressive comments about my articles, I didn’t see why it was such a big deal – comment pieces are supposed to provoke. But watching new film The Columnist, all the agony that trolls can cause came back to me; the way nasty comments can rattle you and make you question your worth, and the shame and fear of people you respect reading them and believing them.
The film is a dark comedy about a columnist called Femke Boot (Katja Herbers, who plays Emily Grace in Westworld) who becomes the target of trolls accusing her of being a paedophile after she writes a column revealing that she went out with a 16 year old when she was 19.
Boot is so poleaxed by this campaign of hatred against her that she can’t concentrate on anything else – not the novel she is meant to be writing or her relationship with her new boyfriend, crime writer Steven Dodds (which means death in Dutch). Dodds, and Boot’s daughter, who is interested in the trolls because she’s doing a project on free speech at school, tell her not to read the comments but she is compelled to look.
I related, watching as she tries to resist the nagging compulsion to look at Twitter, eventually opening the app while lying in bed, the blue glow from her screen casting shadows over her face. She wants to know what they’re saying to try to gain some semblance of control over the situation. Granted the film becomes less relatable when she decides to get her revenge, tracking down her trolls and going on a killing spree, but the director Ivo van Aart wanted the film to show how “it is a trap to get caught in these comments”, he tells me.
Still, he adds “it is not ok that these comments exist in the first place” - The Columnist isn’t a direct translation of the original Dutch title, De Kuthoer, which is one of the insults directed at Femke and doesn’t take a lot of imagination to translate if you say it out loud. Herbers says she hopes the film “can be cathartic to women who have had this happen to them” and I can tell you she succeeds in this, perfectly articulating the particular feeling when you see a series of messages on your screen making assumptions about you and undermining your integrity (there must be a word for this in German).
When it first happened to me I was 22 and had written an article saying that there is a lack of medical research into the benefits of vaping. I didn’t know that the article had been published until I woke up on a Sunday morning to a series of alerts on my phone, all from pro-vapers. Some choice examples: "This article by Susannah Butter is the worst piece of so-called journalism I have ever seen", “Susannah Butter is the most pathetic excuse for a journalist” and “this is completely ludicrous, misconceived and irresponsible – does Miss Butter have a brain?” - not impugning my sexual morals, or threatening my life, but essentially calling me a stupid, irresponsible, unprofessional liar. Online commentators tend to favour superlatives, and they always think they know best.
Seeing messages on screen has an immediacy that the angry letters journalists have been receiving for decades does not - other people can see them, for a start. I tried to ignore them, but like Boot I couldn’t relax. I wanted to know what my detractors were saying even though, in my rational brain, I knew these people didn’t know me, hadn’t met me and may well not even have actually read the article.
In The Columnist, Boot’s editor encourages the trolls. She thinks they add to the hype around Boot and suggests quoting them on the front of her book. The editor of that vaping article didn’t seem to care either – it was a hazard of the job. I’ve wasted hours looking at the twitter feeds of trolls. Some don’t have many followers, often they are anonymous, but it still hurts.
This was one thing that fascinated Van Aart - what people will say when they think they are anonymous. “The process of insulting someone is way more abstract on the internet compared to real life,” he says. “The contrast between what someone writes in a comment, for example a death threat, and who they actually are - a nice-looking father, posing with his family - is what inspired me to make this film.”
That, and Van Aart’s and screenwriter Daan Windorst’s experience of online comments. “I always make the mistake of reading the comments under my work, and letting it get under my skin,” Van Aart admits.
Windhorst had more direct experience of it when he wrote satire for Dutch news website The Correspondent in 2013. “I quickly developed an obsession with the online responses to my writing,” he says. “I began compulsively monitoring both the comments underneath the articles and the tweets linking to the pieces. I was surprised to find so many people who felt the need to respond negatively and even hatefully to them, a lot of them coming back week after week to remind me that they still hated what I wrote. As someone who really wants to be liked by everyone, the comments hurt me. I don’t have a thick skin.”
He resented the mental energy it sucked up. “The commenters took up a lot of space in my head. I developed a dislike both for them and for myself, for becoming so obsessed with them. Why couldn’t I just let them be?” He wrote a short story about it, and then he and Van Aart looked into cases of Dutch politicians, writers and columnists (most of them female) who have been victims of online aggression and misogyny.
What is the solution? Windorst says “if anyone decides to delete their twitter account after seeing the movie, they would be better off – and the world would be as well”. He thinks the internet has “a unique way of seducing us into dehumanising the people we communicate with, which leads to a lot of polarisation and hate, with terrible real life consequences”. Social media companies, he says, “have a huge responsibility in these issues, especially if they keep designing their apps to be as addictive as possible. It’s not entirely my own fault that I keep being drawn back to Twitter.”
Van Aart appreciates that people should be able to say what they want, but adds that “we should be responsible about what we say”. His hope is that the film will contribute to greater understanding about “what kind of power people wield when they casually post something on Twitter. I don’t know if this film will change a lot, but I would be very satisfied if it at least makes a few people think about what they are doing.”
There is more protection now against trolling than when I was 22. Twitter is far from perfect, but it does take steps to review harmful tweets and there is of course the mute button. You can look at replies if you really must, but it’s liberating to just hit mute and get on with your life.
The Columnist is out on digital platforms from 12 March