How do we deal with trolls and internet hate?
I don’t want to post this blogpost, but in a way I feel compelled to. I don’t want to because it’s the sort of subject that makes one a lightning conductor for the very thing that I want to see a lot less of. Never good for someone with an anxiety problem. Yet at the same time, one of the things clients commission me to do is to educate their staff on how to deal with what unfortunately is now part of the social media landscape.
Puffles’ House Rules were my first attempt to protect myself from such things in the Twitter world. Prior to that, it was a case of being stupendously careful with what I posted on message boards and who I accepted as ‘friends’ on Facebook. In general I have a very low tolerance threshold of internet hate – having been known to proactively block accounts before they get anywhere near following. Life’s too short.
There’s no way I’d have coped with the abuse that some have to cope with. It’s one of the reasons why many of my tweets and blogposts contain so few strong opinions – or so few controversial ones. I’m just not in the business of having to deal with responses that people would never make in a public platform in front of not just a public audience, but all of their close friends and relatives in it too.
I coined the phrase “Puffles (*takes plate away*)” for Puffles as part of “Do not feed the trolls” tweets – pointing out that it is both attention and a response that many look for. Give them neither and they soon move on. But that’s easier said than done if you end up with a stream of hate responses from people that keep coming back.
This is far easier said than done due to the scale, complexity and international nature of the internet. While the Metropolitan Police has a new central e-Crimes unit, it’s still in its infancy and is running at nowhere near the level that it should be given the impact that some of the potential illegal posts some put up on the internet have.
There’s also the ‘free speech’ issue – one that is still tripping up a lot of people today. Not so long ago there was the case around Joey Barton & whether he should have been prosecuted. The Attorney General declined to proceed. Though the issue here wasn’t trolling as such, there was a question on at what point (or on what grounds) the state should intervene over what someone has posted online. The issues are discussed further by the Media Standards Trust.
Given the legislative minefields and the limited resources law enforcement authorities have, what are the alternatives? Because the problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Raising awareness – what is happening to whom?
The first part for me is getting wider society to acknowledge that the problem exists. This is what Stan Collymore did recently. Collymore decided to retweet a number of the very abusive tweets that he was receiving. This resulted in police bringing charges against one individual. Just as importantly though, it raised awareness of the problem – as well as shocking a number of people at the level of vitriol being hurled at him. From a media perspective, what was also interesting was that a number of outlets decided to run with the story on the basis of Collymore’s tweets and retweets. This problem is newsworthy.
Then there was the case of England footballer Micah Richards closing his Twitter account because of the abuse that he received. Given the context of recent events in football along with a growing awareness on the back of Collymore’s case, there have been further calls to do something about it.
There is also the problem of hate-posting against women too – the infamous Unilad case – covered both by @boudledidge in On not backing down and in The Guardian here. Finally Laurie Penny wrote about her experiences in a column for The Independent here.
The more people speak out about this, the more something can be done about it. The important factor for me here is the role of people’s networks. This in part is what happened with Collymore. Such was the level of outrage and such is the size of his network that some of the people within it decided to hunt down and expose those who were responsible. This in itself can create its own problems – whether those who respond end up breaking the law themselves to a wider culture of ‘online vigilantism’.
Interaction of law enforcement agencies and grassroots networks
When people report something to the police, we like to think that the police will take action. Tabloid newspaper headlines like to tell us otherwise. One of the things that has not been widely explored is the practical interaction between people’s online networks and law enforcement agencies – the police or otherwise. I’m thinking along the lines of what sort of evidence needs to be gathered in order for example a successful prosecution to be brought where the law has been broken. Should anyone be publishing guidance as to the sort of information that can be gathered or the (legal) methods that can be used to find it? Who then to report and submit all of that information to in order for the police to take action?
What to do if no laws have been broken?
Quite often it might just be the case that someone is choosing to be obnoxious but has not actually broken the law. This comes back down to the size and strength of the networks that people have built up. I’m very lucky to have a large online network that has grown out of Twitter. When I first launched Puffles onto Twitter I had no idea that it would lead to meeting some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. It was only after the first pub lunch a group of about six of us had that I realised the “network” would be something really nice to grow and nurture. Thus we have become an extremely supportive community of shared interests now made up of a web of friendships in their own right. One of the things I love seeing at the offline gatherings is people meeting for the first time and getting on splendidly – as if they had known each other for years.
What works with this?
Well, we all have adapted to leaps and bounds technology has brought. For me it is now normal to meet “new” people who are not new at all – they are those that I may have spent months communicating with but have never met in person. The great thing about this is on meeting face-to-face there’s none of the awkwardness that you get say on a blind date or being thrown into a social gathering where you know no one. There are also lots of other people to vouch for each other on the basis of online exchanges that go back months, sometimes years.
A strong and ever-growing community of online friends – friendships that are nourished by the offline meetups has built up our resilience to some of the problems that we come across online. It’s always nice to have someone else to stick up for you when the guns are turned in your direction. I learnt this when I saw the reaction to Quentin Lett’s article attacking Sarah Baskerville – an article which Adrian Short shreds here and which Patrick Butler wrote about here. What Quentin probably didn’t realise was that as well as having his article very publicly shredded online from many-a-quarter, he succeeded in achieving the opposite of perhaps what he wanted – he strengthened Sarah’s network – and mine too. I only found out about Sarah because of that article. I got in touch with her as a result of that article and the next thing I knew I was at UKGovCamp having found the new world of social media in the public sector.
In that case, a large group of people responded to an ‘external assault’ – the result of which was an even larger group with even stronger links. It’s not automatic that networks will respond like that. Sarah genuinely is a nice person who was unfairly attacked by a newspaper columnist – to which people responded accordingly. This for me underlined the importance of having people to provide you with reassurance and support when trolls attack.