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Trolls continue campaign of abuse at parents of missing Maddie

Kate and Gerry McCann
Kate and Gerry McCann

Ten years on from the disappearance of three-year-old Madeleine McCann, there are still more than 100 tweets an hour relating to the most famous missing child case in the world.

Just over a year ago, trolls forced the parents of Madeleine McCann off social media with the official ‘Find Madeleine McCann’ Twitter account shut down due to what campaigners called “toxic abuse”.

Over the past decade, the McCanns have found themselves caught in a perfect storm of trolling as their daughter’s disappearance coincided with the explosion of the social media site, which had been founded just a year before Maddie’s disappearance on May 3, 2007.

It gave voice to a toxic stream of mainly anonymous, hate-filled and continuous tweets.

While the media spotlight on the case has waned, a new study has found that a tight-knit group of Twitter trolls, convinced of the McCanns’ guilt in their little girl’s disappearance, still spend large chunks of their daily life discussing the case and demonising the family.

The Irish author of the study, Dr John Synnott, a senior lecturer in investigative psychology at the University of Huddersfield in Britain, was surprised by the sheer volume of tweets on the McCanns when he started to investigate the phenomenon.

“The volume is the most overwhelming thing, of how people actually engage in a case that is essentially 10 years old, and the passion and how vicious it can be at times,” he says.

“There is all sorts of language, hate speech, abuse of other people online, bullying, harassment.

“The disappearance with Madeleine coincided with the development of Twitter and the birth of social media. It gave a voice to people who wouldn’t previously have had a voice before.”

The paper, which is co-authored by Maria Ioannou, delves into how trolling forms part of a daily routine, with people devoting large chunks of their time to the largely anonymous activity, mainly outside of work hours.

“They wake up and have breakfast and engage in these discussions online every single day. It’s part of who they are,” he says.

The study identified how there are two specific groups of anti-McCanns and pro-McCanns and the hundreds of trollers using the McCann hashtag every day strongly identify with one of the groups.

Many of the anti-McCann trolls use images of Kate and Gerry McCann as their profile images, typically favouring images of Kate McCann jogging or the couple smiling after Madeleine’s abduction, to bolster their belief that they were in some way culpable. 

The study found this group frequently distributed memes and offensive images in an apparent attempt to elicit a response from pro-McCann users. 

These memes typically depict Kate or Gerry with large sums of money and captions such as ‘it’s not about the money but please keep donating’ to taunt the parents, with comments suggesting they are profiting from their child’s disappearance.

The study found the trolls presented themselves as paragons of good parenting, with Kate McCann and pro-McCann users branded as bad parents.

Kate McCann, in particular, was the subject of repeated insinuations that she had failed to exhibit the level of emotion expected from that of a mother concerned for the well-being of her missing child.

Although most trolls go under a pseudonym, the study found that some of the comments implied a strong female presence within the anti-McCann group. 

“What we found were the majority of people engaged in the commentary were women,” says Dr Synott.

The trolls also considered themselves as seekers of justice who are convinced of the McCanns’ guilt.

Dr Synnott says it is one of the first papers to shed light on trolling behaviour.

“The paper hopes to generate debate around the role of anonymity online and whether it is important for people to be anonymous or whether they should be held accountable for the information they state,” he says.

“You wouldn’t walk up in the street to somebody and shout abuse in their face because there are repercussions.

“Whereas online, while there are laws against this sort of thing, you can say really what you want and there is very little repercussions.”