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The word ‘troll’ is often misused – I’ve had people on Twitter send me direct messages warning me that someone is a troll when what I saw was online disagreement (that sometimes, but not always devolved into insult on both sides), and that’s certainly the way a lot of those in politics and the media use it, so it’s not wonder there’s confusion, especially among those who aren’t high volume users of social media. And that’s influenced by the history of trolling which, as Whitney Phillips described in 2012, has its roots in disruptive, but not necessarily malicious, behaviour.
In addition, the word has connotations of fairy tale, fictionality, childhood, and a lumpish stupidity that makes it easy to dismiss ‘trolling’ as more benign than it is – which is why genuinely trolling behaviour has to be reframed.
When someone writes about, or to, another person with the intent of causing distress or provoking an emotional response, it’s bullying.  Cyber bullying is not trivial, it doesn’t just target the famous, and it’s not easy to prevent.
I’ve seen people say that victims should just block the perpetrator, or report them, but that’s far less easy than it sounds. While cyber bullying can, and does, occur on multiple platforms, the one I’m most familiar with is Twitter.
Twitter has a (widely criticised) reporting mechanism that suspends users, preventing them from posting. Users aren’t informed about why their account’s been suspendedhttps://tnipe.wordpress.com/wp-admin/admin.php?page=polls&iframe&TB_iframe=true (mine was, only days after I opened it, and though I contacted Twitter to find out what I’d done wrong, the only response I received was that I’d breached a Term of Service, but there was no information about which, or how), then unsuspended.
The reporting mechanism’s often used in retaliation, rather than just in response to genuinely offensive behaviour, and there are a number of people I know who have alternative accounts to use during suspensions – in some cases this is because they’re active in areas like #AusPol, the Australian Politics community, where partisan politics can get heated and nasty, quickly – it reminds me of the dumb way to die at the 15 second mark…
But I digress.
As a result of being attacked, I rarely post in #AusPol – not because I’m frightened, but because I don’t need the aggravation, and I’m unlikely to have a useful conversation there. I haven’t really been trolled – I’ve had people argue with me, often assuming things about me based on my profile (one recurrent theme is that I must be receiving some kind of public assistance), and I quite enjoying responding in a way that has the other person walk all the way to the end of a very thin branch, before cutting it off.
I have had one person whose response to my disagreement has told me on at least three occasions that I should go “neck” myself. After attempting to ignore her (she followed me, and responded to some of my posts), I blocking her, meaning she doesn’t see my posts and if she uses my Twitter handle I don’t see it. Like many people on Twitter, she has multiple accounts – though she’s left me alone, her other victims are less fortunate – each new account needs to be individually blocked, and to do that the target has to see attacking tweets.
I’m not her main target, and so far blocking’s worked. Also fortunate is that I’m not vulnerable and I can discount her abuse as the ranting of someone with a genuine problem. If, however, I were feeling less robust, with other stressors; if her abuse hit on something close to home or about which I was vulnerable; if I had less perspective, either always or temporarily; if the abuse was persistent and coming from multiple people; if I were in the public eye; if (as has been the case with another friend) it came from a former friend and was personal, targeted, and being posted to mutual friends; things could well be different.
And those are examples from friends. Some of it is truly horrendous – I have a friend who was trolled about her child who was stillborn at term, another who was sent awful tweets after the death or her father, and a friend whose Facebook page about the death of a (young) family member was repeatedly attacked by people posting vile words, pictures and links.
A friend I met through Twitter told me only this week about having to go to court to prevent a former friend posting long, hateful, and very personal screeds on their Facebook page, about her and her family, that were accessible by mutual friends. You don’t need to have an emotional or psychological vulnerability to find that distressing.
There are people who say ignore trolls. One of the most disturbing accounts of cyberbullying I’ve read is by Leo Traynor, who was the target of an increasingly personal and violent cyber bullying campaign for three years. Read this, and see if you think avoiding trolls is as easy as “just ignoring/blocking” them. Some bullies go away without a response – some bully harder.
The timing of this post is clearly related to the recent suicide of Charlotte Dawson – her death is the spur for three, inter-related posts, of which this is the first published, but not written – the other two are about mental health. I was originally going to write just one piece, but there were too many things to include – and while working on this I decided to share a petition (“Charlotte’s Law“) about cyber bullying; the few words I started writing to encourage friends to sign it became the beginning of this post, instead.
And there’s another petition, addressed to the Australian Senate – Chloe’s Law seeks to criminalise cyber bullying behaviour. Fifteen-year-old Chloe Fergusson commited suicide after eight years of physical and then both physical (including assault) and cyber bullying. And Chloe’s not alone.
Bullying isn’t new, and it’s always been hateful. Bullies are adept at identifying weakness, and at consolidating peers. Cyber bullying means there’s no escape, and that the number of bullies grows. The only advantage victims of cyber bullying have is that there’s an indelible record of their behaviour – but without strong laws and significant consequences, evidence is rarely enough to stop, let alone deter, bullies.
Finally: I saw a tweet a few days ago, regarding the coverage of Ms Dawson’s death, saying that posting help numbers whenever there’s mention of suicide creates a quick fix culture.
I disagree – I believe it recognises that suicidality can be contagious, that someone who’s already despairing can pushed a little further, and that providing Lifeline details (13 11 14) counters that by saying “there’s an alternative, here’s help” – it’s not a solution, it’s a start instead of an end.
And that’s where my next post will pick up.