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Here Come the Trolls

By barrister, Joanna Hardy  

 

What is a troll?

When I was a little girl, trolls were plastic toys with shocks of fluorescent hair. They had funny belly buttons and kind eyes. Children collected them. A small army of pink, green and blue-haired goblins lined up on bedroom shelves of children all over the country. They guarded boys and girls from nightmares and monsters.

As my generation grew up and reached digital maturity, we became the first to enter adulthood under the spotlight of social media. But we did not leave our trolls behind.

A troll is now an internet pest.

They rampage around social media sites causing nuisance, controversy and havoc. Their conduct ranges from annoying to illegal.

They agitate, provoke and cause harm. They no longer guard against monsters because they have become them. 

Our modern trolls are not named after toys at all. To ‘troll’ is a fisherman’s term. It describes the luring of fish to a line.

To troll is to bait. And the modern troll wants you to bite.

The internet is the natural habitat for a troll. Humans are more confident behind a screen. We all say things in traffic jams, shielded by windscreens, that we would not dare utter as an exposed pedestrian. This misplaced confidence is bolstered by the anonymity afforded when lurking in the shadows online. These factors combine to create a keyboard-warrior who quickly graduates from disagreeable to damaging.

This is where the trolls live now. Not on the shelves of children but on the Twitter pages of strangers. Barraging people with unsolicited insults and unwanted attention. Trolls are doxxing (revealing the personal information of others), starting pile-ons (directing mass online users to one account), posting fake pornography, being racist, fat-shaming and wrecking lives. No one is immune. It was difficult not to be moved by pop star Jesy Nelson’s BBC documentary about the bullying she suffered online or by journalist Sali Hughes’ raw struggle with internet users targeting every corner of her life. 

What can be done?

The reaction – legal or otherwise – to trolling will depend on the extremity of the troll’s conduct.

It is not a crime to be annoying or to momentarily hurt someone’s feelings. Anyone discussing the issues of the day, online or in the pub, should expect to withstand the rough-and-tumble of debate. The law is not there to chill but to protect and punish when necessary. 

The bulk of the laws used to prosecute trolls were enacted long before we all logged on.

That is testament to the fact that trolls may feel at home online but they have always walked amongst us. One piece of legislation, from 1988, is the Malicious Communications Act.

Those drafting it could not have imagined Twitter, Facebook or hashtags.

 

"Those taking on the trolls could learn something from other corners of the dark web."

But they did imagine humans sending each other messages that were indecent, grossly offensive, threatening or false with the intention of causing someone distress or anxiety.

And they made it illegal. In 1997, the Protection from Harassment Act pre-dated Twitter by almost a decade. It prohibited a course of conduct amounting to harassment, which includes alarm or distress, when the offender knows or ought to know that he is harassing someone.

These old laws have been supplemented by more modern efforts. Legislation now prohibits misusing a public communications network (2003), stalking (2012) and posting so-called revenge pornography (2015). The Crown Prosecution Service has issued guidance as to how our current laws can and do apply to specific online behaviour. 

"To troll is to bait. And the modern troll wants you to bite."

Is it good enough?

Calls for modern, tailored laws persist and are attractive. Should, in 2019, the public, police and lawyers be scrambling to “fit” new online conduct into a patchwork including old offline laws?

A clear ‘rulebook’ outlawing the most harmful behaviour committed online and using modern terminology is long overdue.

The Law Commission has, this summer, entered the second phase of their review into abusive and offensive online communications. Considerations include possible reform and rationalisation of current laws “with the aim of achieving a coherent set of offences that ensure online users are adequately protected by the criminal law”. 

Those taking on the trolls could learn something from other corners of the dark web.

Users who download indecent images of children are dealt with by law and punishment but also by tailored prohibitive court orders. These can require the installation of internet monitoring software, the inability to delete one’s internet history and restrictions on the type of websites an offender can engage in. Their online behaviour can be seen.

Their anonymity is removed. Orders are balanced so as not to impede employment or legitimate online activities. How far away are we from balancing free speech with legal restrictions on our most damaging trolls?

The test would need to be a high one but some offenders – those driving people to suicide – are surely meeting it. Should we, in extreme and proven examples, fight tech with tech? Could a new type of restraining order have digital teeth?

Most trolling will, thankfully, fall short of criminality. Calls continue, echo and reverberate for social media companies to simply do more to keep an orderly online house. Users can report misconduct, companies can block accounts, but those processes often fall short. The online community we hope to nurture will, to some degree, self-police those who breach developing communal norms.

The next generation will be better than ours and fluent in the developing etiquette required to traverse a life online. The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) has this month released an action plan for public figures on the receiving end of trolling.

It has the backing of Gary Lineker, Sadiq Khan, Richard Osman, Rachel Riley and others. The premise is to not “feed” the trolls. To not bite. The notion that re-tweeting, sub-tweeting, screen-shotting or otherwise publicising the hate is the aim of the trolls. Hate is their currency. It does little but enhance their own self-satisfaction and will attract like-minded trolls to their ugly crusades.

The action plan instead recommends not engaging, blocking, reporting and, if the conduct is unlawful, seeking help.

As the line between our real and digital lives continues to blur, the conduct of the other humans we encounter in our shared digital space will become increasingly important. It is no longer acceptable for the generation before ours to simply say “turn your computer off”. The digital space is where we work, learn, play, fall in love and socialise.

It will take a three-pronged approach to defeat the trolls, or at least, to turn their volume down. We might not be taking the bait, but we can still bite back. A maturing online community, social media companies and, ultimately, lawmakers need to work together to finally put the trolls back on the shelf.

Joanna Hardy is a criminal barrister. She speaks and writes about issues in the Criminal Justice System. She tweets from  @joanna__hardy 

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