September 7, 2012

How do we stop the Trolls?

Published: 7 September 2012 

The issue of cyber-bullying and internet ‘trolling’ is currently a hot discussion topic online and in the media. A troll is:

“someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

Troll Face

It has become a huge internet phenomenon over the last few years with the ‘trolls’ claiming it is just a bit of fun, but the victims are often left hurt or scared. Trolling covers many types of online behaviour such as misleading a new user, e.g. asking obvious questions on knowledge focused forums-experienced users recognise this as a ploy for newbies to unknowingly reveal themselves by answering the question. However, it can also be intentionally nasty with groups of trolls engaging in a personal attack against one internet user. There seems to be a gang mentality associated with ‘trolls’ and if the victim shows any weakness or defiance they are often exposed to a relentless attack online.

The latest victim of online bullying is Charlotte Dawson, a New Zealand born television personality who was admitted to a psychiatric unit following a torrent of abuse on her Twitter profile. Charlotte, who is notorious for her outspoken personality and long, public battle with depression, was singled out in an attack by twitter users after she ‘outted’ a troll by contacting the abuser’s employer. Tanya Heti was later suspended from her University mentor job for sending Dawson multiple abusive tweets urging her to “go hang yourself”. Dawson’s act of revealing and re-tweeting her abusers only enraged other internet users and her twitter profile was bombarded with abusive, personal attacks hash-tagged with #gohangyourself and #diecharlotte.

Charlotte Dawson's Twitter Page

Some might argue that Dawson broke the number one rule of being a victim of bullying-which is not to respond, they will get bored and move on. However, why should ‘trolls’ get to hide behind the anonymity of a fake profile or stupidly-their own profile? What makes people so angry and bitter that they take time out of their day to send disgusting and threatening messages to other people? And, this is adults behaving in this manner-would they behave so menacingly if their identity could be easily identified and publically shamed?

Calls to protect victims on online-bullying

In the ‘real world’ we are told by law that we will be held responsible for our actions- if you repeatedly threaten and harass your neighbour law enforcement would intervene. Recently, Labour proposed cyber-bully laws which will “make it an offence to use an electronic device to harass, menace or threaten another person.” The proposed penalty will be up to three years in jail or a $3000 fine. No Australian State currently has specific internet bullying offences, but Attorney-General Michael Mischin is awaiting a White Paper report to make the decision on whether these laws should be introduced. The Australian Government has also released a Trends and Issues paper stating that cyber bullying is a risk factor for young people. It seems the law is struggling to keep up with the speed of technology and protect victims against harassment.

However, when such laws are passed how will they enforce it? Will both users and social network channels be held accountable?

There are many grey areas that need to be covered to stop people from hiding behind the anonymity of social networks and their computer. One such idea that was explored by Matter Solutions whilst discussing the topic was to consolidate all social media channels (such as having to use a gravatar account to set up social network profiles) so that an internet user will have to be more transparent and accountable for their actions. The whole point of social networking was to have a more open and engaging communication channel-why hide behind a default profile picture? We should have the same personality we have in the ‘real-world’. But yet again it brings the question of ‘how will this be enforced?’

We unfortunately don’t have all the answers yet and it seems the ‘trolls’ show no signs of ceasing their behaviour. We don’t want to fully censor the internet or hinder our right to an opinion and freedom of speech, but we have to protect vulnerable victims of online bullying.

If you have any ideas or opinions on the matter comments are welcome for further discussion…

If you need Support for online bullying then contact Lifeline 13 11 14.

Ben Maden

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