I’ve just returned from a few days in Melbourne. I was looking forward to the Beach Boys 50 Years Concert and some Aussie Rules, but there was no avoiding the cyber safety issue of the week – trolls. As I flew in, the news programmes were reporting that Charlotte Dawson had been admitted to hospital after getting into an online battle with trolls.
“Trolls” is one of those terms that will engender different emotions in different people. Some see them as internet freedom fighters reminding the authorities that the internet will not be tamed. Some see them as an unfortunate but unstoppable bi-product of the internet. Others see them as cowards hiding behind anonymity, protected by weak laws and uncaring service providers.
You don’t have to stand on the side-line of an Aussie rules match to know that Australians are not particularly sensitive souls. That’s why I was surprised by the consistency of the messages across talkback, editorial, and breakfast shows. People wanted more done to prosecute trolls and cyber-bullies.
A UK documentary called the Antisocial network tried to understand what motivated trolls. Perhaps understanding their motivation would help combat the problem. It seems that trolls are just looking for a response. They give a range of justifications for their actions, but in the end they just want to be noticed. It’s a similar explanation for why people post the things they do on social networks generally. More extreme content is more likely to garner a response.
Charlotte Dawson decided she would take direct action against trolls. The mistake she made was to feed the trolls. You never feed the trolls. She said that she could take any abuse targeted at her, which was a red rad to the trolling bulls. I’m not sure how thick skinned Charlotte Dawson is. There are probably very few people who could brush off a concerted attack from multiple trolls. This is especially true if they include family in their attacks.
You can argue that Charlotte Dawson baited the trolls and seeks publicity. That is not true of the many people who set up RIP sites for lost loved ones which get targeted by “RIP Trolls”. Most reasonable people would say that RIP trolling crosses the line. Truthfully, lots of trolling does.
We have to protect freedom of expression. It would be good if everybody cherished their freedom of expression and exercised it wisely. Sadly they don’t. Trolls are now providing motivation for greater regulation and enforcement online. I’m sure you can target the worst of trolling without impinging on freedom of expression, and that the Harmful Digital Communications proposals would achieve that. But under the sort of pressure I was seeing in Australia, you can expect other jurisdictions to take a less balanced approach.
There’s no point in pretending that all offensive trolls could be prosecuted. Unlike cyber bullies, trolls often have no particular connection to their targets. The cost of unmasking them is high, but a few high profile prosecutions would have an educative effect.
What might also be helpful is greater guidance for social network providers on what should be protected by freedom of expression, and what shouldn’t.