YEAR IN REVIEW: Don’t Feed The Trolls?

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In late August, a Twitter user posted “excuse me @MsCharlotteD on behalf of NZ we would like you to please GO HANG YOURSELF!!!”. It was vile, but would have been ignored by most celebrities. However, the actions of Charlotte Dawson soon created a media firestorm against trolls and Twitter in late August and early September.

The tweet was in relation to comments made by Dawson, a judge on Australia’s Next Top Model, about her home country New Zealand; and was soon retweeted by her. For many of her followers, it was a usual thing on her Twitter account, as she is also the head of an anti-cyber bullying group Community Brave. Another user then criticised the abusive tweeter, noting that her husband hanged herself, only to receive “If I was your fiancé I’d hang myself too” from another troll.

But things escalated quickly once Dawson then contacted the second troll’s employer – Monash University. Revealed to be Tanya Heti, she was suspended from her mentoring job at the university, before returning to work in September after the university found she did not “engage in misconduct.”

Then came The Daily Telegraph – followed by the rest of the media, politicians and celebrities – who started a media crusade against the trolls. Their campaign was to get Twitter to reveal the identities of those who publish such disgusting comments so they can be prosecuted, accusing the social network for not doing much to cooperate with Australian authorities.

However, the media attention on the campaign took its toll on Dawson, with hundreds of tweeters posted abusive comments in the aftermath of her actions against Heti. At around 2am on August 30, she posted “Hope this ended the misery” on her Twitter account. By 3am, an ambulance was called at her residence and she was taken into hospital.

She made a full recovery, and came back onto the media spotlight to come face to face with the trolls – well, those easily identifiable trolls. With the help of Channel Seven, she puts them on national television. Not the best way to combat the “do not give them any attention” part of combatting the trolls, isn’t it.

As Luke Hopewell from Gizmodo Australia wrote about the entire campaign, “[it] was pathetic at the least and comical at the extreme.”

However, Dawson’s incident isn’t the only media coverage on trolls this year. There have been several – mainly in the UK, especially given the nature of their press. The BBC’s Panorama programme did a piece on internet trolls and publicly revealed a notorious troll’s name, Nimrod Severn, to be Darren Burton. He is notorious for going around RIP pages on Facebook and leave brutal, bigoted and sometime racist messages like “Rot in Piss” – viewable to all, including grieving families.

Another, Nicole Brookes, became a newspaper sensation after she received abusive messages on Facebook after she decided to post a comment supporting an X Factor contestant. According to The Telegraph, they set up a fake profile with her name, and used it to post explicit comments and even lure young girls. She decided to take action, and managed to force Facebook to hand over details of the people behind the messages. Brookes, like Dawson, has received more abuse by her actions.

So what is a troll? According to The Guardian’s Zoe Williams, they target an entire audience (such as a group of YouTube commentators on a Vlogbrothers video). “They don’t just want to insult a particular person, they want to start a fight – hopefully one that has a broader application, and brings in more people than just the object of their original trolling. The term derives from a fishing technique – say your stupid thing, watch the world bite,” Williams writes.

However, I think we should split up the definition of trolling. Some design their comments just to wind you up and seek a reaction from anyone to throw the conversation on a different topic. Others are just plain mean (i.e. Burton’s messages to grieving families – it is sort of similar to how the Westboro Baptist Church operates), or use similar techniques of a bully – such as using your race, sexual preference or any other significant marker; or gang up like packs of wolves – and constantly prod again and again and again until you receive a mental breakdown.

Or worse, kill yourself.

Sadly, this has happened before. In April this year, a 19 year old from Melbourne committed suicide in early April. She had been keeping a diary on Tumblr and received lots of messages of support, but some trolls decided to push her over the edge. According to the Herald Sun, they only knew after when her father accessed her laptop and saw the messages on her secret diary.

But while we look at Burton as a horrible man, he isn’t every troll in the world. Ironically, Dawson’s piece showed us that trolls can be everyday people – the young and the old. Online, they say the repulsive things. Offline, they probably are at university studying to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. They may be working at that nearest Boost store, or serving you burgers at McDonalds. In fact, it could be a 17 year old son of your friend – as Leo Traynor found out when he wrote on his personal blog his experience of confronting his troll.

“He was horrified at what his son had done. Horrified, but not surprised. He wanted to call the authorities there and then and turn him in. But I said no,” Traynor writes. He soon adds that the troll “burst into tears”.

Traynor’s piece struck a chord with me, because of one line.

“It was like a game thing.”

Why do they troll? It’s hard to say. It may be just a game for some. Others might find it a bit of escapism. Some might even troll because it reflects who they are. It is hard to say.

So, what to do with the trolls? ACMA’s current advice is to ignore the troll, block them, and report them to the site’s owner. If it is really vile, or is essentially bullying, you should report it to the police.

However, for many – thanks in part due to the media’s constant coverage about incidents – they want something done against them. They want, as what has been used by radio shock jocks to defend their own comments while also supporting stopping the trolls, “responsibility” and “ownership”. They want companies to reveal the trolls’ identity. However, this is flawed, because the IP address doesn’t necessarily mean that it is them – it could be a school IP address, the address of a friend of the troll or even a public wi-fi hotspot. Like piracy, there are ways to remain anonymous online that go beyond just simply using a pseudonym.

As I have said before, we should split the definition of trolls – those who use the tactics of a bully, and those who want attention. The best way to combat the latter is simply not giving in to what they want. The comedian David Mitchell says that trolling is like graffiti, their opinion should carry no more weight. “When you read a bit of graffiti that says something like “Blair is a liar”, you don’t take it as fact. You may, independently, have concluded that it is fact. But you don’t think that the graffiti has provided that information,” Mitchell writes.

“It is unsubstantiated, anonymous opinion. We understand that instinctively. We need to start routinely applying those instincts to the web.”

The bully trolls – the one’s who push people over the edge – should face some sort of consequence. But let law enforcement handle it. Do not follow, whatever you do, what Dawson did and “dox” (reveal the identity) the person yourself.

The media has given so much attention to the trolls in recent years. However, instead of just reporting, they have sensationalised it. Sadly, this just feeds into their behaviour – and now they know that what is said online now can have a reaction offline. Trolling is, has, and will be part of being online – you will never get rid of them.

We, however, can minimise their impact. Simply ignore the trolls.

Disclaimer: Terence Huynh is a Software Engineering student at Monash University.
Image by: ~johnluke728/DeviantArt

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