“You scaremongering ignorant fucking cunt, you and your retarded team made predictions that could have fucked this country for billions of pounds, fucked Christmas for a second time and cost thousands thier [sic] jobs only to have your most pessimistic ballshit [sic] now found to be just that. How fucks like you can sleep at night is beyond me and I hope you are fucking held to account for what you have done and could have done if there weren’t some people in the government with a brain.”
How would you like to get this in your inbox? As a senior scientist advising the government on Covid, I get this sort of email on a fairly regular basis. Indeed, (someone calling himself) Mr Roberts (who sent this) is a regular offender. What particularly upset me about this email was that it wasn’t sent to me, but to a junior member of my team. Awful, isn’t it?
Although this is a typical email from Roberts, it is not altogether typical of the genre. Roberts’s spelling is generally good and his sentences might be a bit long, but the grammar is usually sound. Most letter-writers have at best a very basic grasp of the English language – enough to get their point across, but extremely rudimentary. The spelling really is shocking. Sometimes it makes me wonder about the mental state of the sender; whether they are from the UK at all (Russian call centres come to mind); or whether they were even written by a human. I find it strangely comforting to think that some of them might have been generated by a clever bit of computer code rather than an angry, deluded member of our society.
Other things that I have learned is that if you mention vaccination in the media, particularly vaccination of children, then there is likely to be a reaction. However, this only occurs if one’s comments are picked up by the rightwing press – particularly the Daily Mail. The letter-writers also seem to use the same tropes, like the phrase “tick tock” (sometimes just that) or the Nuremberg trials and, of course, Bill Gates (who must get this stuff by the bucketload every day). This rehashing of the same motifs sometimes leads me to believe that there is a coordinated campaign, or at least that these ideas are circulating somewhere and they cut and paste them into their letters to my colleagues and I.
But it isn’t all bad. Sometimes you get someone who is genuinely concerned and/or confused. I always reply to these letters. If I can help explain the science or the risks so that they come to a more informed decision, then I feel I have done my job.
Then there are the slightly more outre examples. There is an artist who occasionally sends me a picture of a misty landscape or a still life – wonderfully touching and thought-provoking – and the musician who dubbed one of my Radio 4 interviews over his song. Bonkers, but it worked.
And perhaps that is the lesson. There are some people out there who might need help, some rude and threatening types who really need to look at themselves, some confused souls who need advice, and some magical, whimsical sorts who just need to carry on doing what they do. Help those who need it, block out the idiots (spam filters are great) and concentrate on the wonderful, the wacky and the profound. Happy new year!