Below the line and beneath contempt – the trolling of Notting Hill Carnival


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From its earliest incarnation, Notting Hill Carnival has been controversial. It’s the ‘Marmite’ of annual festivals. Indifference is not an option; you either love it or loathe it. And those who loathe it don’t hesitate to tell people why it’s so bad.

You’d have to self-isolate from every form of social media not to have come across the carnival-haters. They were always there, of course, lurking in the correspondence columns of local newspapers, contributing to the infamous right-wing rag The Golborne and posting letters written in green ink to MPs and councillors.

But now these Twitter warriors seem to be everywhere, revelling in the anonymity of social media, spilling their bile below the line on websites such as the Mail Online, The Evening Standard and (of course) The Sun. They move quickly, often being the first to comment and then returning to the thread at regular intervals, gathering more of their poisonous ilk along the way.

So who are these people hiding behind pseudonyms such as John Stevens, Sarahjay and Fred Jones? It’s tempting to assume they’re all shaven-headed, intellectually challenged, Millwall-supporting thugs whose fathers and uncles probably took part in the original Notting Hill Riots 60 years ago.

That’s definitely what you are meant to think, from comments such as:

Whateley Yep, get rid of permanently pronto. Its frightening to normal people and its noise noise noise. Nothing English about it at all.

Winnie Heywood Imagine the money saved on policing and the lack of arrests and violence.

Provin Good! That stab fest should be permanently cancelled anyway!

Fred Jones An event real British people will not miss,ever.

AF, Pool The Metropolitan Police give off a big sigh of relief.

Sarahjay, London Great news it is cancelled it is a waste of tax payers money!

TOPHOUSE1 A bit of common sense at long last. The only losers are the criminals and drug dealers.

These examples (from hundreds) are typical in referring again and again to police, crime and violence, drug dealing, noise and Notting Hill Carnival’s cost to the taxpayer.

It’s all rather unpleasant. On 8 May The Independent observed that Notting Hill Carnival has:

long been a site of tensions as racist narratives around drug use and crime rates have sprung up. And the announcement that it would not be taking place this year saw the same prejudice cropping up again in response to the news.

The article was titled ‘White people’s response to Notting Hill Carnival being cancelled shows racism is alive and thriving’. The article makes some good points, but its title is based on what may be a false assumption. We have no evidence about the writers’ race – they could be Chinese or Inuit for all we know! And, despite their British-sounding names, they may not even be British.

If you dig a little deeper, these comments begin to look rather odd. For a start, they are surprisingly well written, technically, without any misspellings, and although the commas and apostrophes are rather random, every sentence has a full stop at the end. As any connoisseur of BTL comments knows, that’s a rarity. The remarks are provocative and offensive, but not to such a degree that they are likely to be removed.

Look, too, at the use of nationality in these comments: “Nothing English about it at all”, “An event real British people will not miss”. The implication is obvious: Carnival is something alien that has been imposed on ordinary, decent, God-fearing, law-abiding British (or English) folk.

Except that no one speaks or comments like that in real life – certainly not in a city with a 40% BAME population and where white British are in a minority (government figures based on the 2011 census). Comments from genuine British racists are invariably misspelled and devoid of punctuation, are more likely to refer to “the Met” or “the police” not the “Metropolitan Police”. The abuse tends to be naked and direct, so usually ends up being redacted by the moderator.

Certain stock phrases crop up year after year in BTL comments about NHC – terms rarely used by real people, such as “stab fest” and “stabbathon”. The commentators who claim to come from London show no local knowledge of the capital beyond what can be gleaned from the media. They seem to have no recent personal experience of Notting Hill Carnival and many of their clichéd views of the event echo themes from the press reporting of 30 years ago (those themes were analysed in the present writer’s 1998 University of Westminster Master’s dissertation, ‘The Press Reporting of Notting Hill Carnival’). AF, who says he/she comes from “Pool” seems unaware that the Dorset town is spelled Poole.

Curiouser and curiouser, then. What can explain it?

Some useful troll-identifying websites and articles provide a plausible answer. Troll farms, many of them operated by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, generate well-crafted messages that are carefully designed to sow division among communities. Writing in Rolling Stone magazine, troll-researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren note:

Internet trolls don’t troll. Not the professionals at least. Professional trolls don’t go on social media to antagonize liberals or belittle conservatives. They are not narrow minded, drunk or angry. They don’t lack basic English language skills.…

Professional trolls are good at their job. They have studied us. They understand how to harness our biases (and hashtags) for their own purposes. They know what pressure points to push and how best to drive us to distrust our neighbors.

The article (That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent It) is worth reading in full, because it shows how ‘bad actors’ are able to manipulate us, pretending to be one set of enemies while actually having quite a different objective in mind.

Notting Hill Carnival has a high international profile with a well-documented history of controversy. There are plenty of prejudiced and overtly racist media reports in the online archives, supplemented by continuing (often ill-informed) debates over policing, crime, nuisance and cost. Trolls exploit all these characteristics to try to further their political and social ends.

We should all be aware that Notting Hill Carnival is a prime target not just for homegrown racists and disgruntled residents but also, more dangerously, for foreign trolls seeking to spread division, suspicion and hatred between racial and social groups in Britain. We should learn to spot them and treat them with the contempt they deserve.