In folklore, a troll is defined as an ugly, cave dwelling creature, an outcast who menaces society through fear and violence. When we consider the modern definition of a “troll”; the role is not so different. A “troll” today is an individual that deliberately bombards people (usually people in the public eye) with vile, abusive messages on social media websites, to cause maximum disruption and distress, usually from a dark room, illuminated only by the computer they are working from.
The motivations behind trolling are always dark, either for revenge, boredom or the sadistic thrill of upsetting people. What we considered in the past as “Cyber Bullying” has now mutated into “Trolling”, evolving into a poisonous Internet phenomenon in which the instigators are free to spew their vitriol all over the Web, protected by the shroud of anonymity among millions and without fear of meaningful punishment.
“Trolling” is sadly back in the news with the death of Brenda Leyland, a woman exposed by Sky News to be a “troll”, who had waged a campaign of abuse and slander at the Mcann family. After the expose, she was deluged by hateful messages on Twitter, defending the Mcanns. Leyland was found dead a few days later. A horrible irony that a “troll” was driven to suicide by the dark art she practised. As sad as this incident was, the wider perspective of this episode has been to highlight the blight that “trolling” has become on social media and posed the question, is enough being done to stop it?
You could argue that the Internet is a lawless Wild West based on the outrageous comments that people appear to get away with posting. However there is legislation in place, designed to prosecute “trolls”. Section 127 of the Communication Act (2003) states “it is an offence to ‘send by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’. This all sounds very firm and sound in theory. However in practice, is this law effective?
It is incredibly difficult for the police to enforce these laws regarding “Trolling”. Firstly the sheer numbers of offenders makes it impossible to police efficiently. Look at some of the tweets sent to high profile figures and the extent of “trolling” is clearly apparent. Among the many polite and friendly interactions some celebrities receive from followers, there are always several abusive messages interspersed among them. A second problem is the vast majority of “trolls” have false aliases, ensuring they are shrouded in anonymity and lost among millions online.
The police are not the Secret Service and simply do not have the time or resources to trace the IP Addresses of every computer that has been involved in “trolling” back to the culprit. Finally there is the issue of determining whether the abuse is serious enough to warrant prosecution. It is easy to prosecute when the abuse is obviously offensive but what if it is far more subtle. If celebrities interact with the public, where is the line between “banter” and “trolling”? A blasé remark could be interpreted by some as “trolling”, whereas other might find it perfectly innocent.
Those who are caught will always shriek the same old line of defence about “Freedom of Speech” and censorship of people’s opinions and argue that measures to regulate what people can post is just a step towards the government controlled Internet networks of N Korea and China. However, in cases such as Leyland and for numerous celebrities, “Trolling” is just an ugly distortion of “Free Speech”, deliberately aimed to spout bile to cause misery, anger and distress.
In some cases, certain offenders might have certain personality disorders and character traits in which means they are more susceptible to participate in “trolling”, perhaps not fully understanding the offence they are causing. Often, the abuse is unfounded and irrational. People are targeted purely for the thrill of infuriating someone that has done the “troll” no wrong. For the majority of “trolls”, the motivations for “trolling” are a triumvirate of boredom, revenge and a desire to cause distress. This is why I struggle to believe “trolls” are troubled souls. Their motivations are dark, selfish and attention seeking. They are not “troubled”, they are just trying to cause “trouble”.
Not all “Trolling” is horrible. Sometimes it can be very witty, tounge-in-cheek and quite entertaining. However, in the context of Leyland’s case and examples of that nature, it is wrong and should be a criminal offence. Needless to say, there will be more of these cases appearing in our newspapers until the authorities introduce even firmer legislation to address this issue. Section 127 has seen arrests for “trolling” increase but it is not enough to combat this epidemic. Until more is done, it will be the responsibility of James Blunt to lead the crusade against “trolling” online.
Illustration – Grace Armatage