Looking under the virtual rock

If you spend as much time as I do online, and specifically on twitter, you occasionally lift a virtual rock, to stare with bewilderment at the creatures scuttling around underneath.

Sometimes, they make you fear for the future of mankind.

First, we need to introduce our cast of characters:

***

Lily Cooper - formerly Lily Allen. A pop singer.

Katie Hind - the showbiz editor of the Sunday People.

Professor Green - a rapper. Not, I presume, an actual professor.

***

So, Lily goes on twitter and criticises Katie, who she says has invented quotes from an interview that never happened.

Not true, says Katie, who insists Lily provided those quotes directly to her.

A not-especially-interesting argument, which goes on for a while, until the arrival of Professor Green - not, to the best of my knowledge, an actual professor - but definitely a prolific tweeter.

Here’s a message he sent on Tuesday:

treat people how you wish to be treated. there's not another woman in this industry I've met who wouldn't tell you what a gentleman i am.

And here’s how he described Katie Hind a few hours earlier:

she's a fat pig faced c**t of a no news whore

As well as:

She's a malicious c**t

And:

she's an abomination, not a woman

All very gentlemanly.

Professor Green (again, not entirely sure he actually is a professor) has just under 1.8 million followers on twitter. And some feel an extraordinary duty to heap abuse upon someone they have never heard of, for a crime they have no knowledge of, following the lead of their idiot overlord:

u f****n c**t u shud b f****d in the arse by 100 dogs 4 writing s**t about professorgreen
wow professor green was right! You are a fat pig faced c**t!

After a few hours of this, the Professor (or is he?) called off his twitter hounds, though not before dismissing anyone with the temerity to criticise his actions:

don't involve yourself in things which do not concern you. learn your lesson and hush up.
you and your ideals can run along darling

Both the Proffesor and Lily later apologised for the abuse Katie Hind had received, while maintaining their complaints about her actions.

Minor pop star and low-grade rapper row with tabloid journalist -- it’s hardly the most important event on a day when we could see another military coup in Egypt.

But what it says about the online behaviour of a section of our society is terrifying.

A guy who insists he is a “gentleman” heaps abuse on a woman, sits back as a collection of (seemingly) barely literate teenagers pile in, and when he finally does apologise does so with all the grace of a grumpy nine-year-old.

And it’s not just dim-witted teenage fans of dim-witted pop stars. Take a look at the comments below almost any article on the Guardian, Telegraph or Mail websites, and you’ll see exactly the same kind of idiocy -- expressed more eloquently, perhaps, but just as blinkered, childish and nasty.

Huge numbers of us will happily use online identities as a cloak for a very dark side to our personalities. Things we would never dream of saying to someone in the same room become acceptable when the target is a twitter username, or someone who simply holds a different view.

This extraordinary technology has enabled tens of millions of people to engage in conversations and debates unthinkable just a few years ago -- it’s built revolutions in dictatorships, saved people who’ve attempted suicide, and highlighted the very best of so many.

But when you see people at their worst,  you can’t help feeling it’s a technology we either can’t handle, or simply don’t deserve.