The D@ily Byte

A blog on digital culture and new media

Social Media and Cyber-bullying: How anonymity online is breeding a generation of trolls

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“Sticks and stones may brake my bones, but words can never hurt me”.

This school yard mantra may once have deterred bullies, but when words and images are put online for the whole world to see it is hard for victims to recover from such a degrading experience. Beyond humiliation and hurt feelings, it’s affects can be fatal.

Canada.com reports that “Cyber-bullying has been spiking the news for several years, with a tragically lengthening suicide list…Alexis Pilkington in Long Island, N.Y. Seth Walsh in California, Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts, Megan Meier in Missouri, Jamey Rodemeyer in Buffalo, Asher Brown in San Antonio, Tex. and James Hubley in Ottawa ” [Canada.com 2012].

Cyberbullying can take many forms. It can be offensive comments sent over SMS. It can be abusive emails. Who is responsible? Once upon a time it was the school bully, an intimidating but known opponent. Now it is online identities hiding behind a mask of anonymity. Who is this new-age bully, you may ask? Meet the troll.

Trolling is a phenomenon that has swept across social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit in recent years and has been extremely prominent in the news of late.

Supporters argue it’s about humour, mischief and freedom of speech. Co-founder of the websiteB3ta which specialises in altering photos for comic effect claimed that: “Most trolling is not criminal – it’s about having a laugh. Trolling taps into people’s desire to poke fun, make trouble and cause annoyance”[BBC News 2012].

However I think there’s a fine line between ‘poking fun’ and bullying, and the generation of trolls sweeping the internet today have most definitely crossed it. In reality many of these vitriolic comments have long lasting effects on the victims and families of cyber attacks.

One of the first high-profile cases of cyber-bullying emerged in the US state of Missouri in 2006, when 13-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide after being bullied on Myspace. BBC News reported at the time the accused bully was acquitted of unauthorised computer use in 2009 due to concerns that a conviction would criminalise false online identities [BBC News 2012].

The most notable victim of late was 16-year-old Canadian Amanda Todd. Only a month before her death, she became famous across the world for her online video posted on Youtube, documenting her own personal bullying ordeal. She told her story through a series of flashcards and touched the hearts of thousands who watched in horror as they witnessed the story of a child who would prefer to die than continue in a world where they’re taunted, harassed, threatened and excluded to the point of hopelessness. And unlike bullied children of the past, home was no longer a safe place for Amanda. There was no escaping her anonymous stalker and online tormentors. Unfortunately the hundreds of messages of love and support posted under her Youtube video were not enough to save her.

Amanda has been unable to shake the trolls, even in death. Her memorial page on Facebook has been beset by trolls looking to anonymously stir up controversy by leaving upsetting messages on the site. Another individual who operates under the handle of ‘haunter’ even set up a Facebook page which contained a number of offensive images, including one of a young girl hanging herself accompanied by the caption ‘Todding’ [Vancouver Sun 2012]. And sadly she is just one of many high profile trolling cases to be reported of late.

Time Magazine reported that “news of the tragic suicide of 16-year-old Canadian Amanda Todd after an ugly incident of stalking, bullying and blackmail hit just as Reddit’s biggest troll, responsible for numerous highly offensive postings in sections with names like “rape bait,” was finally outed. Both stories involved non-consensual distribution of sexualised images of young girls” [Time 2012].

Disturbingly, it is often young women who are falling victim to this kind of highly sexualised form of cyber-bullying. Scholar Mary-Anne Franks has observed, women have become, as Franks put it, “unwilling avatars,” unable to control their own images online, and then told to put up with it for the sake of “freedom,” for the good of the community [The New Yorker 2012].

The unregulated nature of the internet has allowed a lot of this kind of despicable behaviour to continue. However, the law is slowly catching up with the most extreme cases of trolling. In Britain, the Communications Act 2003 governs the internet, email, mobile phone calls and text messaging. Under section 127 of the act it is an offense to send messages that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” [BBC News 2012]. In its most extreme form it is a jailable offense.

BBC News reports that last Tuesday “Sean Duffy was jailed for 18 weeks after posting offensive messages and videos on tribute pages about young people who had died. One of those he targeted was 15-year-old Natasha MacBryde, who had been killed by a train. “I fell asleep on the track lolz” was one of the messages he left on a Facebook page set up by her family” [BBC News 2012].

The article went on to say: “Duffy is the second person to be jailed for trolling in the UK. Last year Colm Coss was imprisoned for posting obscene messages on Facebook tribute sites, including that of Jade Goody” [BBC News 2012].

Concern over trolling is becoming widespread. British MP Karen Bradely raised trolling in Parliament after a Facebook page was set up mocking 17-year-old’s Hayley Bates’ death in a car crash. The largest factor allowing trolling to continue is the mask of anonymity that many social media networks allow users to hide behind.

BBC News reports that Facebook’s former marketing director Randi Zuckerberg and Google head Eric Schmidt have both suggested anonymous posting should be phased out. Many online experts have agreed and warned against the dangers of posting anonymously on the internet [BBC News 2012].

Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottinhand Trent University comments that “Online people feel anonymous and uninhibited. They lower their emotional guard and in the heat of the moment may troll either reactively or proactively” [BBC News 2012].

Arthur Cassidy, a social media psychologist, comments that “young people’s determination to create an online identity makes them vulnerable to trolling. Secrecy is jettisoned in favour of self-publicity on Facebook, opening the way for ridicule, jealousy and betrayal” [BBC News 2012].

Finally computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier told BBC News that we are all capable of becoming a troll and believes the cloak of anonymity can encourage people to react in extreme ways. He commented that “The temptation is there and we can get caught up in impulses. If someone reacts, it’s emotional and it can be hard to get out of. We can all become trolls” [BBC News 2012].

So how do we starve the trolls? Phasing out anonymous posting does pose some serious challenges to freedom of speech and is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Jeff Jarvis, author of Public Parts suggests that the answer is “for newspaper websites and online forums to employ sufficient moderators to prevent the comments spiralling into petty vendettas. To ban online anonymity in order to prevent trolling would be to remove the right of whistleblowers and dissidents to get their message across” [BBC News 2012].

We also need more social media users to intervene and report abusive behaviour. One Facebook user Christine Claveautook this one step further and tracked down a troll who was posting hurtfull comments on Amanda Todd’s memorial page. After finding out the man’s name and where he worked, Claveau contacted his employer via e-mail and shared what the man had done. The employer, a menswear chain in Toronto, responded immediately by firing the man, saying they will not tolerate the mistreatment of others under any circumstance [Vancouver Sun 2012].

So what can victims of trolling do to take a stand against trolls. Internet experts say the key is not to “feed the troll” by offering them a response. Comedian Dom Joly takes a different approach. He describes himself as “troll slayer” and takes pleasure in tracking down the culprits and exposing them to public shame, especially from close family. He told Time magazine that “There’s something about a bully that really annoys me. They’ll say something online that they’d never dare to say to your face…One guy tweeted from his work account that he hoped my kids die of cancer. I let the MD of the firm know and the guy was fired. I felt no guilt, he should have gone to prison” [TIME 2012].

A health writer at TIME.com Maia Szalavitz comments thatUnlike most real-world bullies, trolls online can find a large ready-made audience that consistently encourages them, without any negative consequences. In fact, Reddit rewards users whose posts generate the most response by promoting them to the ‘front page’…Like other bullies, trolls also need to get a rise out of their victims if they are to enjoy the interaction. That’s why ‘don’t feed the trolls’ is a constant admonition on many comment boards: their biggest fear is being disregarded and made irrelevant” [TIME 2012].

This comes back to that old ‘sticks and stones’ approach we have always been told to take when facing bullies. It is all well and good to say stand strong, but for young impressionable victims of abusive trolling, it has proven difficult. As yet another young life was lost yesterday after 13-year-old Erin Gallagher from Donegal, Ireland was found dead only 24hrs after warning her tormentors that she would take her own life on social networking site ask.fm [Irish Central.com 2012], it is clear this is a growing problem which is going to be very difficult to combat.

In the mean time, we can all try our best to stand up to these cowardly bullies. You can report abusive behaviour/images to website moderators. Support friends who may be experiencing cyber-bulling and encourage them to speak out for help before it’s too late.

References

‘Internet ‘trolls’ use cloak of anonymity to torment Amanda Todd in death’ [Yahoo News Canada]

‘Trolling: Who does it and why?’ [BBC News]

‘Amanda Todd case highlights issue of online bullying’ [The Telegraph]

‘The Story of Amanda Todd’ [The New Yorker]

‘How to starve the trolls’ [TIME]

‘Rally to remember teenager who committed suicide after being bullied’ [Truro Daily News]

‘Amanda Todd Facebook page trolling costs Toronto man his job’ [Vancouver Sun]

‘Family devastated after 13-year-old Donegal girl commits suicide due to vicious online bullying’ [Irish Central.com]

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3 thoughts on “Social Media and Cyber-bullying: How anonymity online is breeding a generation of trolls

  1. Great article Courtney! You’ve really covered it well. I can’t believe i have never seen the Amanda Todd video. I am really affected by it, as im sure we all were. It really hits home and brings to light the severity of social media and trolling. It is very scary to think that once something is out there it will always be and with technology today there really is no escape from the media. Ofcourse there are positives to the digital age, but i think much needs to be done to help control such actions and regulate the media. The idea of banning anonymity has sparked much debate because many would argue that anonymity is necessary. Perhaps one step could be educating people to help them adjust to this evolving digital age we are living in. I wrote an article a while back on trolling in light of the trolling against Charlotte Dawson. Trolling is a frightening thing when used in the wrong way.

    • Thanks Georgina for your comment 🙂 I saw Amanda Todd’s video on youtube last week and it is absolutely gutwrenching to watch. It really affected me and prompted me to write about the issue on my blog. I am such a huge advocate for the internet and all the freedoms it brings us, I think I often forget that the online space can have some seriously negative consequences. I think it’s important for people to acknowledge this and realise that on the other end of a computer is a human being with real feelings!

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