When is a troll something worse?

Posted: June 11, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

A woman recently won a court case against anonymous users of Facebook who posted abusive messages directed at her:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/jun/08/facebook-revealing-identities-cyberbullies

At the same time, a comedienne has made a youtube video lampooning the very same people who would post vituperative scorn at her:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/jun/09/thank-you-hater-trolls

These cases have thrown the dubious art of ‘trolling’ into the spotlight, and thrown up questions about potential legislation being drawn up to counteract the safe haven of anonymity the majority of ‘trollers’ currently enjoy. But is the problem and solution as straightforward as it seems?

Advocates of freedom of speech will doubtless paraphrase Voltaire in saying that just because someone does not agree with someone’s sentiment does not mean that it should not be heard. But does wishing cancer and rape on someone constitute free speech or hate crime?

Many commentators suggest that new boundaries have been crossed with the rise of the internet, as if crimes perpetrated online are somehow bridging some new threshold of human behaviour. But surely we simply need to reconceptualise the argument to understand that the definition of these crimes is already familiar to us.

The worldwide web does not offer any more anonymity than the street does. How many street crimes are perpetuated by gangs with masks and balaclavas concealing their identities? One may suggest it is more difficult to track down assailants from cctv footage and eyewitnesses than it is to track down the pc or laptop anonymous threats originated from.

As for the question of abusive behaviour, it is in fact very simple to determine which behaviour needs action taken against it, if we again assume it were to happen in reality. How do we determine criminal abuse? Well if someone were to insult us in the workplace, say, by suggesting we were lazy or slapdash or sycophantic to the boss, would that constitute abuse? Of course not. No matter how unwanted, criticism is part of life as much as praise. Sometimes it is tactful, sometimes it borders on the offensive. But it is still just criticism, and we may offer a defensive riposte if we wish. The same applies to youtube output, say, or an opinion on a social network. People may make derogatory comments you do not agree with, but this does not constitute abuse. Much of this debate must focus on personal sensibilities. As has been stated before, nobody is born with the right not to be offended.

A recent article also raised the unpleasant prospect of young women being sexually harassed in public spaces:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/may/25/four-10-women-sexually-harassed

While any attention that degrades or intimidates anyone is abhorrent, there is a marked difference between a throwaway sleazy comment disguised as a compliment towards a woman’s body, and a spiteful torrent of misogynistic bile spewed while following a woman down the street, and for this reason there should be different solutions.

The ‘broken window’ theory hypothesises that if petty crime is allowed to occur unchecked, this creates a culture in which more serious crime is allowed to thrive. A man or group of men tailing a young woman or group of women whilst voicing abusive or clearly unwanted comments is clearly an issue that should lead to police action. While many men may shrug off a sleazy comment towards the opposite sex as ‘banter’, many women object to being leered at and demeaned by strangers. If the majority of women are upset by this, then a negative culture has been allowed to evolve, though comments like these resulting in police action would be farcical. So, in this case, perhaps it is up to both other women and men present to make it clear that the behaviour is unacceptable. Community spirit, if you will. If the majority deem this behaviour unacceptable, then perhaps cheeky comments may not develop into more serious chauvinistic acts. Or perhaps there is little connection between men who can take ‘no’ for an answer, and those who can’t.

The relevance to online abuse is that the two distinctions are the same. An isolated vile comment is sad, but can be shrugged off with silence, an acerbic rejoinder and blocking of the perpetrator, like an insult or sleazy comment made in real life. There’s also an outside chance that irony or satire has not been comprehended in the medium of text. When the odd comment becomes a campaign of abuse, either from one or many users suspiciously similar in intent posting relentlessly, particularly when these comments are threatening in nature, this should be dealt with as a criminal offence. The only occasion when one might suggest either context should be dealt with harshly, is if the comments are directed at children or young teenagers, as these people may not have the faculties to read intent or cope with even tongue-in-cheek slurs.

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