Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Unsocial Media

I've been a busy bee with university deadlines lately. My latest hand in was to write an Investigative feature on a topic of our choice. I have been pretty interested in Internet trolls since they cropped up over the summer, attacking our London 2012 athletes. Below is the article I wrote, which I actually quite enjoyed.  I got to interview some interesting people including London 2012 athlete Zoe Smith.  Let me know your thoughts!


In any one minute over 100,000 tweets are sent across the globe but some of those are posted with malicious intent.  Nicola Shepherd investigates the rise of the vicious Internet ‘Troll’ and what’s being done to silence them. 

In fairytales, Trolls are monstrous, unintelligent giants with a taste for humans.  In the real world they prey on the vulnerable through social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.  They also go by the names ‘cyber bully’, ‘flamer’ and ‘hater’.  Recently there has been an influx of stories in the media with new victims sharing their experiences with ‘trollers’.  “The idea of Internet trolling has been around ever since we’ve had the Internet, it’s nothing new at all”, explains Cyberpsychologist Monica Whitty.  “Maybe the media has highlighted it more because of celebrity targets.  Media will often pay attention to celebrity”. 

In the late 1990s, trolls spent their time commenting on forums or discussion boards, hoping to provoke a response from the group.  Now, with the explosion of social media it has become far easier for them to torment individuals.  Official figures were recently released showing that the number of people convicted under section 127 of the Communication Act 2003 had more than doubled in the past five years.  “Given the massive growth in the Internet and other media like Twitter and Facebook, it is hardly surprising that there has been such an increase in harassment convictions over the electronic media,” Labour MP, Andrew Gwynne told Yahoo News.  Gwynne has since called for Internet guidelines to deter future online harassment.    While there has been an increase in the number of convictions, in the past 12 months there has been a fall in the number of complaints being made to the Police.  “The number of officers being called out for communication offences has fallen in the last 12 months, due to the way jobs are being handled and the teams that they are being given to”, explains Surrey Police Support Officer, Dave Towner. 

How we are going to police the ever-growing troll epidemic has become a tricky and somewhat cloudy discussion.  In the UK, we are entitled to freedom of speech, which not only allows us to voice the good things about people but also the bad.  There’s a fine line between free speech and freedom to abuse.  Social networking has given us a new platform to communicate on and the “rules of net etiquette are still being defined” believes Whitty.  By interacting online, trolls can separate themselves and feel less responsible for their actions, as they cannot see the physical repercussions.  “They harp on more because the lack of social presence”.  Recently, the Police have been seen to get involved in more cases of trolling and ensure that any complaint will be dealt with.  “Surrey Police take all complaints by the public seriously, however that complaint reaches us.  Anyone reporting a offence will get to see an officer at a time and place that’s suitable to them”, explains Support Officer Towner.  The Police are wising up, creating dedicated teams to deal with cyber bullying grievances.  “We have a scheduled response unit, which equates up to 12 appointments per day.  These appointments typically deal with people making complaints about posts on Facebook and other social media”.  The number of communications offences reported in the last year that Towner has dealt with has been minor cases, with the majority stemming from arguments that “spill out of school”, rather than the malicious cases we’ve recently seen in the media. 

There are many different variations of trolls.  There’s those that find it a “hilarious” pastime and then there’s also the more serious ‘RIP Trollers’, who target Facebook pages or profiles that are created in memory of a fallen loved one.  Colm Coss was one of the first to be prosecuted under section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act, after he posted grossly offensive comments on memorial pages in 2010.  Coss’ comments have since been removed from the Internet, but the messages left held claims that he had committed necrophiliac acts upon their bodies.  He was later sentenced to 18 weeks, the longest any convicted cyber bully has received.  As recently as October this year, three more people have been convicted of sending indecent and offensive messages under section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act.  Inspired by website ‘Sickipedia’, Matthew Woods posted sexually explicit comments and derogatory ‘jokes’ about missing five-year-old April Jones.  Woods faced sentencing just 24 hours after sending the message.  “I woke up this morning in the back of a transit van with two beautiful little girls, I found April in a hopeless place”.  Woods received a 12-week sentence in a young offenders institution.  Laura Higgins, a helpline manager at Safer Internet, an organisation that helps support the general public against online hate, believes the media should offer advice but not sensationalise the problem.  “We are feeding into the hands of attention seeking trolls by selling their story”. 

“Trolls have the powers to regenerate even if hacked apart”.  While this may be part of the mythical definition of a troll, it is the same the Internet species.  An Internet troll has many identities, like Michael Brutsch, a 49-year-old software programmer from Texas, whose known online as ‘Violentacrez’.  A self confessed serial troller, Brutsch claims to get a “thrill” from setting up forums on Reddit, an online community where users vote on content, titled ‘rapebait’, ‘picsofdeadkids’ and ‘chokeabitch’.  As well as leaving offensive messages, Violentacrez also encourages others to post voyeuristic pictures of women and girls captured without their knowing, also known as ‘creepshots’.  A New York journalist recently “unmasked” Brutsch calling him the “biggest troll on the web”.  Since his unmasking, Brutsch lost his job but has continued posting on the Reddit forum under a far less subtle pseudonym ‘MBrutsch’.  In an interview with CNN, Brutsch tried to explain why he did it.  “There are hot button topics that you can make a comment about and just enrage people.  Sadly for me I enjoyed doing that.”

When it comes to Internet trolls, no one is safe.  The weightlifter from South-East London, Zoe Smith, was looking forward to “inspiring a generation”, but before she even took the Olympic stage she was attacked on Twitter.  Branded a “lesbian” and a “bloke” by her troll, Smith explains she wasn’t shocked by the comments. “I was more angry than hurt.  I didn’t find it particularly shocking but at the same time it wasn’t pleasant”. Unlike some, Smith didn’t just sit back and take the abuse, instead she fought back.  “When you’re in the public eye, there’s always going to be that one person who has to make a comment even though they’re not qualified to”.  Smith wasn’t alone; Rebecca Adlington also faced an online hater in the lead up to the games.  “You shark fin nosed derkhead, you belong in that pool you f****** whale”.  Tom Daley was hit after competing in the Men’s Syncronised 10m Platform with diving partner Pete Waterfield.  Daley’s attacker, also known on Twitter as @Rileyy_69, tweeted about his late father who died in May 2011.  “You let your dad down I hope you know that”.  He then proceeded to torment Daley’s followers, after they jumped up to his defense.  “Come on then you c*** I’ll stick a knife down your f****** throat now comeback and stop hiding from me,” said @Rileyy69 to one defender.  After a number of complaints, the Police got involved with Daley’s case and arrested the 17-year-old behind the malicious tweets.  The same can’t be said for a victim out of the public eye explains Higgins.  “There is no consistency.  Some police forces are more active than others”.  Surrey Police Support Officer, Dave Towner disagrees and believes that the public should take action.  “I feel that people need to take more responsibility.  If you’re experiencing trouble on social networking, stop using social networking”.  It’s a tale as old as time, if you ignore someone they will eventually disappear, but what happens when you’re unaware that you’re even being trolled?

Earlier this year, TV presenter Richard Bacon admitted to have being trolled himself in his BBC Three programme, ‘The Anti-Social Network’.  After Googling his name, Bacon came across a website where the owner had a vendetta against him.  “This fella was fantasising about my death, daydreaming about me dying in a plane crash and expressing his hope that my body would be mangled in a car wreck”.  Whilst looking for his own troll, Bacon met another hater who tried to justify his actions.  “It gets addictive when you get people going crazy at you”, explains serial troller Damon Evans.  “It all started when I was drunk.  I was on Facebook, It was just a bit of fun”.  Evans said that he was no longer trolling but on closer inspection of his YouTube account, this is not the case. 

While we are ready to point the finger at popular social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, more and more trolls are “hiding” behind anonymous sites are causing trouble.  Little Gossip is a website where you can post anonymous ‘gossip’ about a fellow university peer or work colleague.  What was supposed to be harmless soon became a place for trolls to attack individuals.  Upon visiting the site, you’re greeted with the most recent ‘gossip’, which included one statement made about a girl from Selby College.  “Go jump in frunt of a bus or train! No one will care! GO D1E!” The Guardian contacted Little Gossip but has received no further comment from the site.  Another popular anonymous site, Ask.Fm, allows users to post questions to each other but what seems like innocent fun can become far more dangerous, explains Higgins.  “A very sad example I saw of this recently was where someone posted a comment saying, ‘why don’t you drink bleach and kill yourself like Amanda Todd?’”  Amanda Todd was only 15 when she took her own life, after being cyber stalked by a 32-year-old man for three years.    Both of these websites rely on self-censorship, claiming that they do not monitor what is being posted.

Incidentally, there are those who believe that what these trolls do isn’t worth being arrested over.  To them, police should be working on ‘real’ cases.  Sunny Hundal, editor of the weblog ‘Liberal Conspiracy’, believes it’s ludicrous to arrest someone for expressing his or her opinion online.   "It’s incredibly worrying that people are being arrested for merely voicing opinions on the Internet, however offensive others may find it.  This isn’t stalking or harassment but the censorship of political speech and we should all worry about how prevalent it is becoming”. Hundal also blames social networking sites for not standing up for their users when they are arrested.  “We are now in a situation where the police are prosecuting people who use social media to voice their opinions, merely because Facebook or Twitter are unlikely to complain if their users are arrested”.  While Hundal may believe that trolls are voicing opinion, others disagree.  “They enjoy antagonising people and seeing the kind of response they get back”, argues Whitty.  Even Michael Brutsch, the Reddit troll, admitted he likes the “thrill” of trolling.  “I just like riling people up in my spare time”. 

Both fairytale and Internet trolls have one thing in common, they both like to hide behind something.  It’s time for them to return back where they belong, under the bridge.  

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