So what is an ‘internet troll’? Images of green goblins with unkempt hair standing on end couldn’t be further from the truth. The suitably named ‘internet troll’, personified by the above ‘Troll face’, according to Wikipedia, is “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response.” Read: Bullying.
Internet trolls are people just like you and me, except they hide safely behind their anonymity, filling cyberspace with anything from hurtful comments about individuals to absolute lies about organisations, waiting to get everyone upset then feeding off all the trouble they’ve caused. The intention is to insult and hopefully create some sort of confrontation along the way, leaving a cookie crumb trail of chat room destruction that will incite other trolls to join in and add to the damaging threads. We already know how devastating virtual humiliation can be for young people, particularly when they have chosen to use the internet as a source of comfort through engaging with like-minded people in chat rooms and on bulletin boards. Australian teenager and depression-sufferer, Olivia Penpraze, blogged about her condition as a way to relieve stress and garner on-line support. It wasn’t long before trolls added that she should succumb to her depression and commit suicide – the endless trolling and baseless insults finally became too much and the 19 year-old took her own life. While not all examples of trolling are this extreme, like any form of bullying or defamation, the extent of psychological damage will be different from person to person, thus making the damage hard to measure.
What the Law says
Internet abuse of this kind rarely culminates in criminal proceedings but new legislation hopes to change that and put an end to these hurtful ‘shock tactics’. In the UK, troller Liam Stacey was jailed for 56 days after he posted racist tweets mocking footballer Fabrice Muamba who collapsed on the pitch during a match in April. The offensive tweets included, “Muamba, he’s dead, hahahaha.” The comments were shocking and that was exactly the intention of being so crude.
Ahead of new laws coming into effect, Olympic cyber bullies have been warned to cease and desist the making of offensive comments, particularly about the athletes. Yahoo! Sport reported today – “Police arrested a 17-year-old man on suspicion of malicious communication after British diver Tom Daley received tweets saying he had let down his deceased father by finishing fourth and failing to win a medal.” Ahead of this arrest, Monday saw Swiss footballer Michel Morganella expelled from the Games for tweeting South Koreans “can go burn” after they they defeated the Swiss, and Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou was expelled prior to the opening for racist tweets mocking African immigrants. Although Morganella and Papachristo have not been charged, The International Olympic Committee is able to act on these incidents and regulate the behaviour of their players and members in a way that is not being done in the world at large.
The Amendment to the Defamation Act, now being debated in the House of Commons, in the UK, would ‘let internet providers off the hook for the publication of their content’, as long as the identity of their users is divulged. Should someone feel their reputation has been damaged by a comment made on-line, or their well-being greatly compromised, they would be able to press charges and could find out the offender’s identity to pursue the case in court. While this could prevent people from feeling as though they have freedom of speech, if speech is so free it results in the loss of life through irresponsible internet usage, perhaps the time has come to lift the veil of anonymity in the virtual space and call this what it really is – ‘Verbal assault’. Hopefully this kind of legislation will be adopted in this and other countries soon. Until then – ‘Don’t feed the trolls.’