Online Abuse and Feeding The Trolls

The recent online incident where model and television personality Charlotte Dawson was systematically and relentlessly hassled on Twitter, until she attempted suicide, has again highlighted the dangers one can face when interacting online.

Attacks from so-called internet trolls can come for little or no reason, or as part of a targeted and specific campaign against a person, organisation, or idea.

While nobody wishes to downplay the seriousness of the Dawson incident, many have commented on her handling of the situation, and how she could have dealt with it better.

“Online community manager and social media consultant Laurel Papworth said that, by responding to and retweeting attacks such as calls for her to “go hang herself” – and even calling the boss of a woman who abused her online, Dawson gave her enemies the oxygen they craved.”

This is often described online as “feeding the trolls”.

Federal opposition leader Tony Abbott has called for changes to the law relating to “scurrilous” usage of online services. He stated:

“I don’t believe in censoring the internet but we do have to have reasonable protections. What we’re looking at is more capacity for take-down orders.”

In its basic form, this statement is simplistic, and shows little understanding of the legal complications of “taking down” material from the internet.

He also contradicts himself in saying basically that “while he doesn’t believe in censoring the internet, there should be more capacity for censoring the internet.”

That is effectively what he is saying.

Since the incident, Twitter has confirmed that indeed it would not remove abusive messages, such as those that comprised the attack on Dawson. At first glance, this seems like an unusual stance for Twitter to take – however the reality is a little more complicated.

I remember an incident that I reported over a decade ago involving the once massively popular ISCABBS, where a user set themselves a highly offensive profile, in which they insisted that “all Australians were racist bigots”.

I reported the profile, but was told that while it was offensive, almost certainly inaccurate, and that something could be done about it, as ISCABBS was a US-based service – (at that time, hosted at the University of Iowa) – all usage of the BBS fell under United States law, and as such the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which enshrines the right to freedom of speech, applied.

In short, the user had the right to say “all Australians were racist bigots”, even if there was no basis to the statement, and ISCABBS had no power to remove or have the statement removed.

In regards to abusive tweets, Twitter seems to have taken much the same stance. They operate under United States law, and could be challenged under those laws should “free speech” be attacked by such take downs.

Current laws come from an age where the internet was not the ubiquitous communications medium it is today, and without a radical and coordinated change in laws across the globe, there is really only one thing we can do.

Don’t feed the trolls.