Katie Hopkins, Hate Bait, and Free Speech

An easy way to get clicks to a website is with something controversial. Content that is sick, offensive, distasteful, or outright horrible is always appealing to certain people. The sick, the maladjusted, the plain ol’ curious. And it’s for this reason that we saw an interesting trend in online journalism recently: the rise of hate-bait.

Hate-bait is a form of trolling. It’s posting deliberately sensational things of a negative nature in order to get clicks. Like if I wrote a blog post saying KILL ALL FAT PEOPLE. I don’t believe fat people should be killed. But people would come and read my blog anyway (reckon I could get away with it?). “How could he think such an awful thing?” they might think. Or perhaps they’d whisper secretly to themselves “I actually do believe this, I’d love to read someone else confirming my beliefs.”

One way to do this without exposing yourself to the backlash of liberal online retribution is to couch your headlines in fuzzy language. As per Betteridge’s law of headlines,  “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” So my headline above might be carefully worded as SHOULD ALL FAT PEOPLE BE KILLED? I don’t have to defend that proposition in the article, I can even dismiss it outright and argue passionately against it. But you’ve put the question out there, you’ve sparked the interest, you’ve got the click.

Another strategy is to write about yourself and your own life, but in such a way that people will be outraged by it. A stronger form of the humble brag, this ‘aggro-brag’ is designed to generate sensation via posturing and feigned ignorance about why your opinions are annoying. Applied to our headline, we might see something like I DON’T LET MY KIDS PLAY WITH FAT CHILDREN BECAUSE I’M A GOOD MOTHER. The best ever example of this is Samantha ‘don’t hate me because I’m beautiful’ Brick.

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Do you remember Twitter on the day that ‘the brick’ dropped? It was anarchy. An early example of a Tweetstorm. Basically everyone hated this awful lady for writing about how pretty she thinks she is, and how life is hard for her because of it. (I don’t mean to pick women for my examples, there are also plenty of men who engage in similar hate bait behaviour: Jeremy Clarkson, Piers Morgan, and Rod Liddle have all made careers out of this). I don’t really think Brick was desperately burning to tell her story, that the injustices she’d suffered needed to be told to the world, because that would be insane if true. The only rational explanation (assuming everyone involved is a rational agent…) is that either she or the Mail thought it’d be a good way to generate some page views. It worked.

Katie Hopkins is a journalist who never needed to resort to such tactics. Her realm is that of the unobfuscated hate bait, the purest form where even the headline is wrought with bile and dripping with offence. But who is Katie Hopkins and where did she come from?

I first heard about KH as a contestant on The Apprentice. Remember The Apprentice? I think it’s still on TV, but we all stopped watching it ages ago didn’t we? Katie was on it around the time it was already starting to unceremoniously slide from being a sort-of good business show, to horrible sell-out reality TV garbage, of which Hopkins was undoubtedly a harbinger. What she later did for online journalism, she arguably was a kingpin of for The Apprentice.

She made it through to the final but turned down a place in order to look after her kids, an issue which later caused a bit of a legal fracas between her and Lord Sugar. On her time on the show, she was notable for making controversial remarks about fellow contestants and generally people she didn’t like in society.

Then she went away for a while.

I first recall her coming back when she made an appearance on This Morning, moaning about people who give their children silly names.

It was a weird argument to be making, like it’s anybody’s business what anyone else calls their children. Weirder still was Hopkins’ annoyance with parents who name their children after places (eg. Brooklyn Beckham), when Hopkins’ own daughter was named India. In this cavalcade of noise and bluster, thus began her reign of terror.

She then became a bit of a regular angry woman on the circuit, popping up on This Morning, Loose Women, and all over the papers. She did a really weird thing where she got really fat to prove to fat people that it was actually really easy to lose weight and fat people were just lazy. It felt a lot like an Alan Partridge breakdown.

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fat alan

Then she just kinda moved on to regular Twitter trolling. I followed her for a little while, out of that car crash curiosity, but it eventually got a bit too much. At time of writing, her most recent tweet is a conspiracy-style venn diagram accusing the BBC of inventing a story about racial abuse towards a previous GBBO winner in order to drum up attention to the show.

WAKE UP SHEEPLE

Now she has a LBC show where she just broadcasts her opinions out to the world. She’s pretty well suited to talk radio, which is a format basically supported by argument. If everybody agreed, there’d be no show and no listeners. So she’s found a perfect little home for herself.

But what’s her role in society? Her purpose? A gentle court jester, prodding at our fears and securities? I’d imagine that she likes to think so. But I see her more as a professional troll. It’s pretty clear she’s a right-wing Tory in real life, but her career has been made into packaging her views into efficient formats. Hate gets great SEO.

So what should we do with Katie Hopkins? They say don’t feed the trolls, but they also say fight fire with fire. She’s got a platform, and a fervent following of people who support her for saying it ‘as it is.’ She’s a figurehead for the anti-PC brigade, and that alone rules out viewing her as an idle threat.

I’d turn to the greatest work on political freedom ever written: On Liberty, by JS Mill. In this, Mill offers a passionate defence of many forms of liberty – particularly of speech and thought. It’s been a while since I actually read the thing, but I recall the defence of all opinions basically proceeding as follows:

  1. There are three types of views that can be expressed: all true, all false, and a mix of truth and falsity.
  2. True beliefs ought to be allowed as the truth promotes good/utility.
  3. True beliefs should also be questioned, as in questioning them we get a greater sense of them.
  4. False beliefs ought to be allowed in order to allow us the opportunity to see them proved false.
  5. And we’re not so infallible as to always be able to tell the difference between a true and false belief. So we should allow even the beliefs we hold to be true to be held up to new scrutiny.
  6. For beliefs that are a mix of truth and falsity, we should allow them in order that the truth will out.

So basically, you should always allow people to speak their mind – irrespective of whether you agree with them or not. If you do agree with them, great, that’s an opportunity to reaffirm yourself of your beliefs. If you don’t, even better – that’s a chance to change their mind, or have your own beliefs challenged, or together uncover some previously unknown piece of knowledge. So yeah, open debate is great and should be celebrated.

Now, I’m not going to fall into the trap of ANGRY ONLINE MAN and go on some kind of free speech crusade. Liberty has another dimension, the freedom to live without hindrance. Mill himself has a principle of restricting action that does harm (which he doesn’t really apply to speech, which I think is interesting). But what I mean is that we should be free to block people who send us abuse online. If we feel threatened or intimidated by someone, our concern for our own liberty trumps their freedom to speech in some cases (without us becoming all oversensitive and coddled, of course).

I could write a whole blog on this subject and specifically about blocking speakers from coming to talk at universities, but I won’t. I’ll just say that going to uni to learn new things and challenge your beliefs, but preventing those beliefs from being aired when you don’t like them feels somewhat hypocritical.

So, with Hopkins, it seems like the best thing is for her to be able to air her opinions, and for us all to air ours in response. The theatre of public ridicule is the best place for her inaccurate beliefs to be shot down, but also for her to have the opportunity to question some of ours. You don’t have to follow her on Twitter, you can even block her if you like. But trying to stop her from having a voice entirely isn’t the way forward.

ok i promise i won’t have any more opinions about online discourse for a while now. thanks for reading.

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