Mara Naile-Akim - How to be a right-wing troll in the media

Earlier this year, a Times journalist called Melanie Phillips decided to troll her political opponents. This served as a good example of how trolling is not restricted to social media. It is very possible to provoke a reaction and then retreat into victimhood and self-pity using traditional mainstream media as well.

Phillips decided to attack the equivalence between anti-semitism and islamophobia: first on TV and then in The Times. The argument she offered hinged on the meaning of the latter word: Islamophobia should be interpreted purely as the dislike of the religion of Islam — not of Muslims as a minority group. It is therefore totally unlike anti-semitism which, according to Phillips, is quite clearly a dislike of a particular ethnicity.

And what of the second meaning of the word ‘Islamophobia’, one that stands for prejudice against people? One that is instantly recognisable to most people in the UK? Phillips was quite adamant that the adoption of this meaning was the result of a sinister plot:

“That’s why the Muslim world invented the term: to turn criticism of the Islamic world into a pathology. Not only would this silence debate but it would serve a deeper project.”

This talk of ‘invention by the Muslim world’ and ‘deeper projects’ is full-on, crazy, conspiracist nonsense, of the same order as the anti-semitic conspiracy theories around the Jews controlling the world, blood libel and poisoning wells. For two sentences, the mask falls and we see the real Phillips — a racist anxious to demonise Muslims, to present every single one as devious & as eager to cover up the human rights abuses in Islamic countries. All this is in order to, ultimately, achieve their goal of ‘eliminating and destroying the Western civilisation from within’. The Left, predictably, are in on this clandestine conspiracy, supposedly supporting anything that threatens the West.

No doubt this is extreme Islamophobia ‘of the second kind’ —a direct equivalent to antisemitism that also encompasses racist jokes on Facebook and hate crimes. But when this was pointed out, Phillips acted as if they were objecting to the Islamophobia of the ‘first kind’ — legitimate criticism of the religion and of the genuine human rights abuses perpetrated in Islamic countries.

In reality, things are rather simple. There is Jew-hate and Muslim-hate. There are some people who make accusations of Jew-hate in response to legitimate criticisms of Israel and related organisations. There are some people who make accusations of Muslim-hate in response to legitimate criticism of Islamic countries and organisations. There are Muslims who engage in Jew-hate, there are Jews who engage in Muslim-hate, there are representatives of other religions who engage in one or both. The situation is entirely symmetric. In both cases, making generalising statements about all Jews or all Muslims is a form of racism irrespective of anything else.

Does referring to Muslim-hate as ‘Islamophobia’ really form part of a plot? There is clearly an important debate to be had about the conflation of the two meanings, but Phillips is not interested in that. Instead, she only talks about ‘how critics are silenced by an accusation of Islamophobia’. Of course they sometimes are, and that is wrong, however one cannot ignore the other meaning of Islamophobia that is symmetric to anti-semitism. When people in the UK call out others for Islamophobia, this typically refers to racist jokes on Facebook and hate crimes, not criticism of nasty religious practices and regimes. The Leftist/Muslim conspiracy that she alleges to conflate the two meanings does not exist, and would serve no useful purpose if it did.

However, when Phillips was called out on the real meaning of what she said and wrote, she retreated back to her “well I don’t hate Muslims and Islamophobia is just criticism of the religion of Islam” safe space. She also made some cursory condemnation of violence against Muslims just to cover her bases — after having made up a conspiracy theory about them. Jewish organisations did not buy this and lined up to condemn her.

Then she turned to crudely attack anyone who objected to her sleights of hand. Emotive, personal attacks, indeed, are laced into everything she writes on the subject. People who object are viciously belittled using the traditional stereotypes the Right has in store for that loosely defined group of people they call ‘liberals’. She very carefully avoids addressing the substance of her opponents’ arguments — she knows she will lose badly if she tries. Hiding behind statements such as ‘this absurd diatribe certainly merits no detailed discussion’ is the usual tactic. The aim is to provoke, to troll, to upset and invite criticism so that you can present yourself as a victim.

That final chapter plays out on social media, the aim being for Phillips to talk of herself as a ‘victim of Leftist/Liberal/Muslim hate’. This is achieved by selectively re-tweeting messages of support and by attacking people non-stop. The words ‘freedom of speech’ come up more and more often — the typical trick the likes of Phillips pull when taken to task over what they have said. For Phillips, being attacked, being criticised is a validation she needs to present her views as important ‘because they upset people’.

I was not surprised to find out that she is a strong Brexit supporter who goes about trolling Remainers in exactly the same way. She is also a militant climate change denier. Even though she is a journalist by trade, one given a platform by the Times no less, she is a troll of the sort you see on political forums everywhere. The trick she has played here — dog-whistling a very different message and acting like a victim when this is pointed out — is one that they love as much as she does.

Gerry McCann