‘Troll’ is a contentious term. There are nearly as many types of troll as there are people interacting on the internet. Wikipedia has a usefully wide definition; ‘a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community’. They can be experienced by movie stars, teenagers or even the dead. These individuals who ‘troll’ have different motivations, online experiences and, most of the time, they don’t know when to stop typing and walk away.
The March of the Troll
The troll is now one of the most widely feared creatures on the web. The troll was born long before the advent of twitter and survived on a hotbed of older online forums. Confined largely to gaming websites, these early trolls were restricted in whom they could attack. With the advent of social media, however, the list of potential victims has grown exponentially. People write things online that they wouldn’t dream of saying to strangers, face to face. They show off online; they use the internet to air views they know are socially unacceptable and revel in any attention they attract, positive or negative. There is a suggestion that some people are just bored and winding up people online is an easy outlet. However this does not lessen the distress that trolls can cause their victims.
Mary Beard, a professor at Cambridge University and TV academic, named and shamed a troll, Oliver Rawlings, by re-tweeting his offensive message to her 50,000 followers. An even more astounding turn of events followed when one of Mary Beard’s followers tweeted back to say “Mary, if you would like to send a copy @Rawling153’s tweet to his mother, Joanne, I’d be happy to give you the address”. Very swiftly Rawlings tweeted a number of times to say “I sincerely apologise for my trolling. I was wrong and very rude. Hope this can be forgotten and forgiven” as well as “I feel this had [sic] been a good lesson for me. Thanks 4 showing me the error of my ways. I wish you all the best”.
— John Wilson (@tug) July 29, 2013
Verbier resident, James Blunt, is another example of the way in which humour and a direct response can be a tactic against trolls. Most of his twitter activity is to retweet abusive comments with a witty rejoinder or self-deprecating comeback. When Mr Blunt saw a tweet stating “@BBCRadio2 please please please please stop playing James blunt please …thank you”, he replied “Dad? Is that you!?” This is, however, a risky strategy, easier for powerful celebrities and one that may well back-fire. Users who decide to tweet back should do so in the full knowledge that it may not stop the abuse, simply encourage it.
— James Blunt (@JamesBlunt) January 24, 2014
Last year twitter introduced a report tweet button which was the result of an e-petition campaign over the summer. People can now report individual offensive or harassing tweets to twitter, potentially getting the offending user suspended. In December 2013, twitter temporarily introduced new blocking rules which allowed blocked users to continue to follow and interact with the accounts of the persons who had blocked them. The blocked user’s activity was made invisible to the victim as if the offending account did not exist. Importantly, the blocked user was not notified that he/she had been blocked. Such was the twitter outcry at this policy that the company’s bosses were forced to revert to old rules under which a user is no longer able to follow an account once blocked. However as twitter argued at the time, the notification of a block can aggravate the perpetrator and trigger an escalation in the offensiveness of his or her behaviour. The most persistent and abusive twitter trolls can still easily create multiple accounts and renew their campaign of harassment. Trolls are generally impossible to trace, using as they do proxy servers or internet cafes so as not to reveal their own IP address, or simply because they are beyond the reach of the victim. Whilst facebook now requires users to register a valid email address before they can set up an account or post comments on the website, this will not prevent users setting up anonymous email addresses.
Recently, the former footballer Stan Collymore has complained that twitter has not done enough to support him in the face of abuse.
The Law of Trolls
For signs of how online abuse may be tackled one can look to the UK with its advanced media culture, strong libel laws and absence of the almost absolute defence of freedom of speech found in the US constitution.
Trolls are beginning to realise that they can be punished in the criminal courts. On 9 July 2013, Reece Elliott, a self-confessed part-time troll, was jailed for two years and four months for posting on Facebook messages such as: “I’m gonna kill hopefully 200 before I kill myself.” He was prosecuted for making threats to kill under Section 16 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and for a further eight offences under the Communications Act 2003.
On 24 January this year, two Twitter trolls were sentenced to 12 week and 8 week custodial sentences, having already pleaded guilty to sending menacing messages under s127 of the Communications Act 2003. The trolls will also have to pay compensation. Their victim, Caroline Criado-Perez, came to public attention when she successfully campaigned for the Bank of England to keep a woman on banknotes, in this case Jane Austen. Sadly, she became a victim of the Twitter trolls. She received tweets which were plainly abusive as well as numerous rape threats. She sought police action.
‘Grief trolls’ menace memorial pages set up on facebook and elsewhere by grieving friends and families. One such grief troll, Sean Duffy, was found guilty under malicious communications legislation and jailed for 18 weeks. Magistrates also banned him from using social networking sites for five years.
However it remains difficult to tackle online abuse, particularly given the global nature of the internet. It is no surprise to find the absence of any consistent law governing conduct on the internet as a whole. The internet transcends boundaries in a way that most national laws do not. Conflicting laws from different jurisdictions may apply, simultaneously, to the same content. The victim, the troll and the internet server hosting the web-content may all be in different countries.
Until the internet operators tighten up their procedures so that the true identity of its users is recorded and made available to victims, the only way forward so far has been to contact the host server or host website and seek disclosure, whether voluntarily or by way of a court order, sometimes accompanied by a demand that the offending material is removed. An internet platform or web-site operator can sometimes be liable for content which user’s publish. However, as yet, the law, particularly in international situations, does not provide enough assistance to the abused victim whose need is to unmask, expose and if possible destroy the troll. Victims remain too often without recourse to effective remedy.