Tagged: trolling

The price of outrage

Sometimes a story moves so fast it’s hard to keep up with. Such has been the case with the saga of Alan Jones. I wrote an open letter to 2GB on Saturday evening, shortly after news of Jones’ intemperate remarks to a gathering of Young Liberal students in Sydney broke. I then slept in on Sunday, prior to working my night job.

By the time I’d woken up, I’d already missed half the fun. Jones’ press conference yesterday, purportedly to apologise to the Prime Minister, has already been much discussed, and derided, for its transparent insincerity. To say Jones “doesn’t get it” doesn’t cover it. I shook my head, went to work, and after getting home at six in the morning, I slept late again.

While I was blearily shoving cereal down the hatch at midday, a petition launched by change.org to remove Jones from his duties was collecting over 30,000 signatures. I would guess that very few of them listen to 2GB, but that didn’t stop sponsors from withdrawing from Jones’ program: luxury car maker Mercedes-Benz; supermarket oligarchs Woolworths; tea-makers Dilmah; Freedom Furniture; the list goes on. The moral question for them now is whether or not they’ll resume their support for Jones when the opprobrium abates.

Jones has, of course, been pilloried from all quarters and all sides of politics, though, again, there’s been discussion about the timing and tenor of the condemnations: compare Malcolm Turnbull’s brisk and unequivocal condemnation to Tony Abbott’s relatively tardy and tame one. That’s all grist for the mill for commentators, and for the Labor Party. I’ll leave that there and return to the central theme.

Jones’ remarks would have created outrage at any time in any context. Outrage is, after all, part of his stock in trade. Nonetheless, it’s the timing here that’s really pushed his career to the limit; that forced him to “man up” (and note, even his apologies are gendered: the subtle implication throughout was that Gillard ought to do the same if she wanted to mess with the big boys).

Once, Jones would have scoffed at the most timid suggestion that he apologise. This time it’s different. It’s not just the sheer vindictiveness of what he said; it’s that it marks the symbolic bottoming-out of our public discourse that has been an increasing topic of debate essentially since Tony Abbott assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party.

It comes barely a fortnight after The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper with more than its own share of print-version shock jocks, launched a war on Twitter trolls. That it was a journalist from the same newspaper that broke the yarn (along with, it should be acknowledged, Twitter user @greenat16) is a wonderful irony.

As I wrote to 2GB, I wasn’t sure where they drew their own lines in the sand. But Australians, as I predicted, have drawn it for them, and sent a reminder to our political classes: the level of bile in public debate is starting to make us all sick. And, in this case, it’s social media users that stood up to the real trolls in our society. Not the twerps on Twitter; the ones with real power and influence.

Alan Jones is as entitled to his views as the rest of us. All of us occasionally say things that transgress the bounds of good taste, and nothing Jones said to a private gathering of young Tories was, as far as I can tell, defamatory, discriminatory or an incitement to violence. The same can’t be said of many of his previous utterances.

At the end of the day, the real question is why Jones and his ilk – Sandilands, Jackie O, Ray Hadley and the rest – should be afforded the continuing privilege of a microphone. That’s something that only their audiences, and the advertisers that enable their careers can really answer, but on the weekend they were reminded, again, that outrage cuts both ways – and trafficking in it comes at a cost.

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