Amid all the brouhaha about trolling, trolls and what is to be done about them, one simple fact has been mostly overlooked. And that is at least in its more extreme forms, trolling is already illegal. You only have to look at Part 10.6 of the Criminal Code.
That part of the code provides that a person may be guilty of an offence if they use a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence. This is defined by the “reasonable person” test: that is, what a reasonable person might find offensive “in all the circumstances”. Sounds a bit nebulous, doesn’t it?
Most reasonable people, though, would find the behaviour of Bradley Paul Hampson offensive. Hampson was sentenced to three years’ jail in March 2011 (later commuted to six months) for defacing the Facebook pages of two murdered children with child exploitation material.
A year earlier, a woman was handed a suspended sentence for a similar offence. The trolls who buried Charlotte Dawson’s Twitter feed under an avalanche of invitations to commit suicide might have cause to be nervous, as would the halfwit who taunted Wests Tigers’ captain Robbie Farah over his mother’s passing.
Then there’s James Vincent McKenzie. McKenzie is the nom de plume used by the person who has devoted years to systematically stalking/defaming writer Marieke Hardy on his Google-owned blogspot. The difficulty, as with the Twitter trolls, lies with finding the ISP behind the account, to unmask the person behind the screen.
Unfortunately, Hardy’s attempt to name and shame her persecutor on Twitter late last year backfired when she identified the wrong man, Joshua Meggitt. Hardy herself was then sued for defamation, and Meggitt is now also attempting to sue Twitter which – like Google – insists it is not responsible for defamatory content.
Of course, there’s trolling and there’s trolling. The majority of those who disrupt and derail online discussions are nothing more than perpetual irritants, and most of us simply swat them away as we would blowflies in a pub. Dealing with them is mostly a matter for moderators, not the law.
It’s how to deal with the Hampsons and McKenzies of the world that is causing such grief. What steps can we take to bring to account those abusing online anonymity in such a grotesque manner? And what are the wider implications, both for privacy and freedom of speech?
Just as importantly, how do we deal with such harassment and vilification when it touches us on a personal level? If ignoring bullies were easy, they would likely never have existed, either in the playground or the ether. Not everyone is born with a thick skin, and there will always be cretins who seek to exploit their vulnerability.
The bottom line is no one should have to put up with threats of physical and sexual violence, defamation of one’s character, or racist or homophobic taunts – not in the real world, not even on the football field (or in football crowds). So it’s hard to justify why it’s any more acceptable online, even in defence of privacy or anonymity.
One popular solution, adopted by Hardy, Dawson and Sady Doyle (who initiated the #mencallmethings campaign on Twitter) is to call out bullies through exposure: by retweeting comments, often to far more followers than a bully can hope to reach him/herself, the principle is to shame them into more sociable behaviour.
Here’s the problem with this method: it doesn’t work. There’s plenty of evidence showing trolls lack empathy for others, and it would be easy to assume they have no shame, either. But that would be wrong, since evidence also suggests that trolls suffer from profound lack of self-worth, feeling unworthy of acceptance and belonging.
Dr Brené Brown, a researcher specialising in shame and empathy at the University of Houston, Texas, writes that shame is likely to be a source of destructive behaviour, rather than a solution to it. She points out that it’s not shame that stops most of us from hurting or offending others; rather, it’s empathy and positive self-regard.
Since shaming is likely to further decrease self-regard, so too it inhibits one’s capacity for empathy. This reinforces to tendency towards anti-social behaviour. (There is a difference, too, between shame and guilt: shame is about the self, whereas guilt is about the behaviour: “I am bad” versus “I did something bad.”)
That insight has implications for not only how we deal with bullies in the online world, but also in the real one. Retweeting offensive comments works on about the same level as victim impact statements: it offers some emotional redress for the wronged, but sadly it’s likely to have little positive impact on the wrongdoers.
All this, I’m painfully aware, gets us no closer to a solution. For now, only the law as it stands offers any protection to victims of serious online bullying. The question is how to enforce those laws against those whose position in cyberspace, for now, keeps them beyond its reach.
First published in The Age, 12 September 2012