Is it even possible to imagine the state of Piers Morgan's mentions? The clamouring, hysterical, hyperbolic maelstrom that must greet him every time he slides his phone unlocked – a mangled catalogue of death threats, feminist diatribes and incandescent Madonna fans. Harder still, is it possible to imagine the state of Piers Morgan's head? How it must feel to be Piers Morgan, his pink thumbs dragging through a never-ending river of shit, a river he himself created, a river he himself shits into, a river he is drowning in but cannot help but dive back into every single day.
Even by his standards, he's been on an impressive run of form lately. In the space of a week late last month he added Ewan McGregor and the 5 million people worldwide who attended Women's Marches to his lightyear-long list of ongoing feuds. Morgan branded the protests a "mass hissy fit" and McGregor a "paedophile-loving hypocrite", and a fatigued nation was once again dragged into the psyche of a petulant man with more online enemies than a 13-year-old Call of Duty player screaming into his headset.
Morgan is merely a leading light among a cabal of British journalists who, despite being born long before the internet was invented, have had their careers defined by petty online spats. Over the past few years, these inflammatory columnists have dominated the political and cultural conversation, using an appearance on Question Time or a few hundred words in the Express as a launchpad for campaigns of sustained nuisance and confrontation.
There have, of course, always been professional contrarians who seek to destroy everything liberals hold dear. Yet, while the outrageous statements launched by the Richard Littlejohns and James Delingpoles of old were confined to the black and white boxes of opinion columns, Twitter has blurred the lines between soapboxes and personal attacks. Former hacks, radicalised by the extremities of internet discourse, have found a new lease of life pursuing vendettas well beyond the opinion pages and out into the ever-flowing bloodstream of the internet.
Of course, the Mother Superior of this culture is Katie Hopkins – a woman who has quite artificially aggravated her way to notoriety via a strain of hot-takes that could only ever have found support in the sweaty ranks of egg avis and Pepe bots. Her career – a sort of propulsive motion experiment reliant on the combustive energy of angering "butthurt libtards" – is proof of how Twitter has enabled the petty-commentariat to wield such strength and influence. Once Hopkins has picked her target – be it Danny Dyer, Ellie Goulding, Russell Brand or Ramadan – she no longer needs to wait for a newspaper to publish her thoughts. She simply tweets them and waits for the outrage to roll in. It is this freedom that has allowed her to push the limits of acceptability into the realms of hate-speech, and in turn encouraged the tabloids she writes for to do the same.
The irony plaguing the petty-commentariat is their disdain for sensitive liberal "snowflakes", yet it's they who are inconsolably offended by everything they see.
The cartoonish grotesqueness of Hopkins' online persona demonstrates how Twitter has turned the game of shock-journalism into a rapidly escalating game of chicken – her mockery of suicide, migrant deaths and dementia sufferers exhibits a button-pushing more closely resembling boredom than it does any political ideology. Yet, as outlandish as the vitriol gets, what's stranger still is how Twitter has allowed these writers and personalities to engage on a personal level with their victims.
Louise Mensch is another politician-turned-columnist who has taken the game of provocation to bizarrely intimate lengths. She has been roundly lambasted on a number of occasions for seeking out ill-advised wars-of-words with celebrities or other journalists, but it was her unprovoked attack on 17-year-old Ed Miliband fan Abby Tomlinson during the lead-up to the 2015 election that made the biggest impression. To her credit, Mensch is at least an entertaining member of the petty-commentariat, regularly bulldozing into online spats without checking she has anything to spat about in the first place – most recently confusing the closure of fabric with Brexit.
Of course, these are merely a few headline grabbers. The controversy-creators range in motive and quality, from Julia Hartley-Brewer's person-to-person crusade against "Bremoaners", to Michael Gove's recent dig at snowflakes, they have shifted the focus of journalistic debate towards a pedantic politics, preoccupied with nitpicking and hypocrisy. Columnists who, despite believing themselves to be libertarian defenders of free speech, bicker late into the night with any potential adversaries still awake.
And this is a shift. When outrageous opinions were confined to newspaper print there was something quasi-fictional about the enterprise – the writer with their disorienting polemic was like a gratuitous cartoon character, vocalising things none of us would dare say in real life because they didn't quite exist in real life. Now, the opposite is true: they are constantly present, constantly shocking and the option is there, should we want it, to shout back.
Their targets have changed as well. For the columnists who don't use Twitter, their work is just sneering and full of perfunctory controversy, but it is also, at least, pejorative and broadly concerned with fist-shaking at political or cultural trends. The petty-commentariat prefer instead to spar with minor celebrities or teenagers. After all, why try to understand the migrant crisis when you can have a go at Gary Lineker's ears? What need is there to back up your opinions when you can call out teenagers for not looking ethnic enough?
Ultimately, the richest irony plaguing the petty-commentariat is their disdain for sensitive liberal "snowflakes" – spineless millennials incapable of reading the back of a cereal box unless it's got trigger warnings. Yet, despite these constant denouncements, it's they who consistently prove themselves inconsolably offended by everything they see. They are the ones taking to the safety of the internet to complain about how unfair the world is, how nothing ever goes their way. Whether the threat is posed by Beyonce, burqas or Brexit-blocking, they are unable to deflect even the slightest criticism, and run straight to their phones to bicker over any remote challenge to their cultural hegemony. This has become the strange fate of millennials, to be decried as babies by a professional class of infantile trolls.