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Are Trolls Unavoidable Consequences of the Open Net?

Olympic champion swimmer Rebecca Adlington has hit back at somebody who tweeted gratuitously offensive and insulting remarks about her appearance by reposting it on her own Twitter account, so her 50,000 followers could see it.

She identified a student at Leeds Metropolitan University as responsible. He promptly denied it, but it was from his Blackberry. It pushed up the agenda once again the issue of trolling, stalking online and being needlessly rude about others.

‘Troll’ is another old word taken up by the internet, and in this case given a ghastly new lease of life. A troll was a kind of supernatural being in Norse mythology, a negative creature linked to witches, berserkers and generally evil figures unable to be helpful to the human race.

We have seen the birth of their contemporary counterparts.

Internet Publishing

As the internet takes over the world, gradually it becomes clearer that the open net is not exactly open. And in many cases, people who publish silly, dangerous or illegal things shouldn’t expect it to be so.

Paul Chambers posted on Twitter that he would blow Robin Hood Airport, ‘sky high’, when he was frustrated at a flight delay. He may have meant it as a ‘joke’, indeed, some comedians defended his action. Or it was simply letting off steam. Either way, he was convicted of ‘sending a menacing electronic communication’.

Sixty year old Frank Zimmerman, who threatened by email to kill the children of Louise Mensch MP argued that it must have been carried out by a computer hacker as he had no memory of doing it. He was still convicted of the offence.

Talking across social media sites is also not fully free and open. Anything said on the internet can come back to bite the originator at any time. Several people were prosecuted following the 2011 summer riots in some UK cities for aiding and abetting social unrest.

Criminals have been caught because they were unable to resist talking about their crimes on social media, even posting pictures of themselves with their swag! Online bullying, particularly of young people is becoming a real social problem, with the perpetrators happy to inflict ‘anonymous’ misery on others.


Many people feel free to share comments and ideas on social media that they wouldn’t in snailmail or face to face. David Powles, writing in the Eastern Daily Press (8 May 2012) about the dangers of sharing online, quoted Simon Hampton, lecturer in psychology at the University of East Anglia.

Hampton said that people go outrageous online to be seen as part of a group, to be famous/notorious or because they just don’t think that it will be seen by a wider audience. He thought that postings in the privacy of a bedroom could trick people into thinking they are not that public.

He likened it to crowd behaviour. In a football crowd during a game somebody may be aggressive in a way that they wouldn’t if people were watching them. The fact that even at a football game, cameras are on the spectators all the time, escapes them very often.

It seems that people believe they are immune online from responsibility. They are not. Nowadays, everybody is a publisher, so people should, legally speaking, be even more responsible for all their online postings.

The ‘Art’ of Trolling

According to Urban Dictionary, trolling is ‘the art, usually via the internet, of deliberately, cleverly and secretly pissing people off’. It’s not just making rude remarks or shouting obscene words at someone. Neither is spamming someone. That’s just a nuisance.

The Dictionary says trolling is deceiving the victim so he/she truly believes what you say, however outrageous, malicious or misguided and must not realise that you are trolling them. If you are outed as a troll, you have failed and could even be counter-trolled.

Additionally as the word gains wider currency through media stories, it goes beyond provocative actions towards harassment. The media has called ‘trolls’ the people who deface internet tribute sites in memory of people who have died from accidents or suicide, and their unpleasant activities ‘RIP trolls’.

Chief Superintendent Bob Scully of Norfolk Police told David Powles for his article, trolling is ‘a nasty and insidious crime’ which they will always investigate. It’s as if the people who do it are not content that a family and friends should be grieving and wish to say something about the loved one, but they must spoil it in as brutish a way as they can.

Social Critique?

A study by Whitney Philips, LOLing at Tragedy, explained that ‘commenters who post nasty remarks on Facebook profiles, MySpace pages and other human personae of the deceased, claim the whole horrifying practice is a social critique on the way we live our Web lives’.

Rebecca Greenfield reviewed the book on The Atlantic Wire and said ‘these characters see the outpouring of emotion on memorial Facebook pages as saccharine and  disingenuous’.  She quoted Paulie Socash who went to jail in the US for trolling, ‘this isn’t grief. This is boredom and a pathological need for attention masquerading as grief’.

Well, if that’s their view, we’ll have to let them keep it, because they are not going to be sensitive to others till they suffer losses of their own. As Greenfield said: ‘Social critique? No, horrifying and offensive’. She said that some commentary can and should be made about how the internet responds to death, but ‘RIP trolls aren’t proving any points’.

In the meantime, legal action is being taken against Facebook, by 45 year old Nicola Brookes. She was severely abused by trollers who posted a fake profile of her as a paedophile. She is asking the High Court to compel the social network site to reveal the computer addresses and names of the originators of the offensive material. She will then take a private prosecution against them. The fightback has begun.

Read On:
‘Anonymous’ on the Web Is Now a Rare Breed.

The Web of One May Not Be Desirable After All.

11 Worst Computer Viruses, Worms and Trojans (So Far).

The Atlantic Wire, Rebecca Greenfield, 15 December 2011.

Image: Gil