Tagged: cyber-bullying

Calling out trolls from the cave

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

Baiters, haters and spivs

In the online edition of Melbourne-based publication King’s Tribune last month, editors Jane Gilmore and Justin Shaw came to a radical decision. They resolved – after a few months of earnest consideration was capped by one post of anonymous, misogynist bilge too many – to turn comments on their website ”off”.

Given the magazine deals mostly in robustly expressed opinion, and not wishing to discourage debate, Gilmore and Shaw made an even more radical suggestion: letters could be sent by email or Facebook, or even (are you sitting down?) by post. The most cogent, topical and witty of them would be considered for publication.

It’s important to note the Tribune is a small venture. It began five years ago as a newsletter for a St Kilda bar and became a ”real” magazine last October, extending its reach through newsagents into Sydney and Canberra. Its circulation is less than 1000; Gilmore and Shaw keep day jobs.

There are practical reasons for a small publication like the Tribune to disable comments: neither the editors nor individual writers have the time, energy or inclination to monitor and moderate, much less reply to them all. There are more pressing things, such as getting out the next issue.

The Tribune is not alone. Many bloggers are heading down the same path, which seems counter-intuitive, given immediacy and interactivity were two of the key attractions of blogging in the first place. But how many people are actually bothering to read the so-called bottom half of the internet, let alone add to it?

My guess is that it’s a tiny minority, but it’s a minority that’s having a disproportionate influence on both the tone and direction of the print and electronic media.

The key question for older mastheads in particular is how much immediate, non-considered, anonymous commentary enhances public debate – after they’ve spent valuable resources weeding out the spammers, trollers, and astro-turfers that deliberately seek to distort and/or poison it.

There’s some evidence the astro-turfers, in particular, are on the march. British writer George Monbiot recently told of being contacted by a whistleblower that worked as part of a PR team paid to infiltrate comment threads and forums, doing the bidding of their corporate clients. The whistleblower worked under 70 different usernames.

The implications for debates on contentious topics such as climate change – which is not actually scientifically contentious, unless you have an enormous vested interest in convincing the public otherwise, or at least sowing the seeds of confusion and doubt – are obvious. And alarming.

Then there’s the issue of anonymity. This might be vital if you’re a Chinese or Syrian dissident or, for that matter, a spambot turned corporate whistleblower. Mostly, though, it just allows people to indulge their worst tendencies, not only towards individuals but entire social groups.

In this respect, a culture of widespread online bullying – particularly towards female writers – actually has the potential to drive some of our brightest voices out of public life altogether. Writers have always needed thick hides, but for some the price of your anonymity can be measured in their therapy bills.

It’s true that people haven’t changed in their tendency to be biased, ill-informed, unreasonable or at times plain inarticulate, and that we shouldn’t blame the technology (which can also be such a transformative agent for good) for the shortcomings of those who abuse it.

After all, people can also be wise, considered, challenging and eminently reasonable, and they too can reach a wider audience than ever before. In practice, though, this rarely happens. Mostly, comment forums remind me of children’s playgrounds, where the bullies always win – because everyone else scarpers.

The sad truth is that controversy outrates reason every time. We live in an immoderate age. It’s why Ray Hadley, Kyle Sandilands, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt are among the best-paid and most powerful media personalities in the country.

Does the popularity of The Drum, The Punch and even, for that matter, Q&A depend first and foremost on the talent of their writers and guests? Or do they live or die on the extent of the frenzy they generate? This is a difficult dilemma for mainstream media publications, which (unlike The King’s Tribune) base part of their online business models on advertising pageviews.

The genie is long out of the bottle, to the point that it’s both impossible and undesirable to stuff it back in. But, were the genie able to grant three wishes, I’d request genuine transparency of identity (why can’t names and addresses be withheld, where clearly necessary, on request?), a much tougher line on personal abuse and a greater weighting towards comments that actually expand discussion.

All of which takes time, money and human resources. But with the nation’s political and personal manners increasingly coarse, it might help elevate the tone of how we speak to each other, and provide at least some protection from an army of baiters, haters and spivs.

First published in The Age, 12 April 2012