Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

When trolling turns into harassment.

There’s a blog post floating around today that is as compelling as it is disturbing. It’s a blog post by Leo Traynor on meeting a troll. Reading Traynor’s account of what he went through is disturbing. The harrowing harassment he …

Tue, Sep 25, 2012, 14:45


There’s a blog post floating around today that is as compelling as it is disturbing. It’s a blog post by Leo Traynor on meeting a troll. Reading Traynor’s account of what he went through is disturbing. The harrowing harassment he had to endure is something no one should ever have to deal with, particularly considering – like most online harassment – it seems to be completely without reason, basis, or indeed fear of consequence. I don’t know Traynor, but I really feel for him, and I’m glad it’s over. I’m also glad he has the courage to write about such a horrible experience, as many people who deal with such prolonged incidents deal with them in silence. If you haven’t read his blog post, do so now, and if you already have, here are my thoughts on it, after the jump

I wrote about trolling previously here, when online threats to the young British diver Tom Daley resulted in the arrest of the perpetrator. I have plenty of concerns around the blurring definitions of entitled civil liberties and the arresting of people who throw out insults and threats online. Such behaviour can be the result of how accessible ‘targets’ now are. You can just go on Twitter and insult anyone you want, something which previously would require far more effort, such as writing and posting a letter or confronting someone in the street.

I suppose potentially, we’ve all allowed ourselves to be open to such instant insults and harassment. We’re all accessible online and also, there is so much information about us online that with a quick search, anyone can compile a catalogue of ammunition with which to build up a campaign of harassment, should they be odd enough to think of that as a worthwhile pastime.

But I think categorising all nasty online behaviour as ‘trolling’ is wrong. For one, labeling someone who makes an off the cuff insulting remark that’s a one off as a ‘troll’ is incorrect. They’re just an eejit who spouted some vitriol. Trolling is purposeful and persistent. And when online trolling goes offline, as Leo Traynor so horribly experienced, that’s not trolling. It’s blatant harassment and stalking, and I think labeling it ‘trolling’ diminishes its seriousness. Traynor exposed the gravity of his harassment, which began as trolling, but turned into something far more sinister.

Like most people who’ve hung around the internet for too long, I too have suffered both trolling and harassment. In the days of a previous blog I had, nasty comments would sometimes pepper posts, and generally I either hit back with a smart arse remark or just ignored them. On a couple of occasions, the perpetrators went further, emailing my (then) work address with insults. Again, I ignored them. Who does that? I would think. What a bunch of weirdos. Sympathetic journalists and others would email me when I brought it up on my blog, saying they too had been victims of such nastiness and suggested mechanisms both technological and psychological with which to deal with it.

On one occasion, a person I (perfectly fairly) criticised on my blog left rather threatening comments, eventually getting an associate of theirs to ring my desk phone at the Sunday Tribune with a death threat. It was so hilariously disproportionate that I wanted to ignore it, but because I was aware this person had previously violently attacked someone, and because the threat was phoned in to my workplace, I had to report it to the gardai. I felt pretty silly sitting in the garda station saying “someone threatened to kill me” with the garda saying “why” and me replying, “well, I don’t actually know, really, apart from a blog post.”

A couple of years later, a different person set up a parody Twitter account slagging me off. It was initially harmless enough stuff that I tried to ignore, apart from thinking that whoever was doing it was pretty sad if they were spending their time and energy insulting me online. ‘The only worse thing than being talked about…’ people would say, and I would inform them that I had long stopped reading anything on message boards or on Twitter or on blogs that was about me (which was a fairly rare occurrence, in fairness, and still is) because it would drive you crazy if you did. It’s weird. People make throwaway remarks thinking they’re throwing them into an abyss as opposed to real life. My work (fair game), personality (maybe fair game?), appearance (possibly less fair game) have all been slagged off by people I’ve never met online. Random commenters on message boards have implicated me in imaginary relationships, called me every name under the sun, and said very cruel things. I have a thick skin though, and can now even laugh when I occasionally stumble across them. My favourite slag ever was on Broadsheet which I think had a post of a PR shot from TG4 with a comment that said something like “hipsters can’t be fat”, which, in fairness, is pretty funny. So in order not to weep every time someone threw a dig – and as we all know, women are far more susceptible to criticisms of their appearance over their work – I adopted a rule about ignoring criticism and praise equally and just getting on with it. It’s a rule, I feel, that has served me well. I don’t shy away from arguments and debates, but I have no desire to engage with idiocy or nastiness.

Eventually the Twitter account became nastier and more obsessive. They started targeting my friends. I found it weird and creepy, but never threatening. Nevertheless I decided one day that I had had enough and began the arduous process of finding out who was behind it through cross-referencing various accounts and getting to the source. When I discovered who the perpetrator was, I have to say I was surprised. It wasn’t someone I knew too well, but they were a smart person who surely had better things to be doing. I let them know I knew who they were, but because they worked in an industry that slotted into the venn diagram of Internetland and media (I’m trying to be vague here), I decided not to expose them because I imagined it would have an extremely detrimental impact on their job. I was not about to go Grace Dent on their ass, and to be honest, I also felt sorry for them, and was very confused as to why they decided to spend loads of time throwing digs at me. Their behaviour was pathetic and weird, smacking of jealousy and ultimately, considering they didn’t cover their tracks very well, downright stupid. And while I pretended that none of their actions had any negative impact on me and how I felt about myself, of course it did. It was cruel. I was freaked out by it, wouldn’t you be? And even when I said I was ignoring it altogether, occasionally I would take a peak and then instantly regret it. So even though I didn’t broadcast who they are, and only told one close friend in confidence, there’s a small vindictive part of me that given the opportunity to screw them over in the future, I might just take it. Maybe that makes me as sad as them.

It also made me think that if someone as inconsequential as me – someone who just happens to write in a newspaper and be on TV now and again – can attract such targeted negative attention, then what do people who are actually in the public eye have to put up with? This thought crossed my mind again recently enough when Ryan Tubridy quit Twitter and when he sporadically mentions all the rubbish and slaggings he had to put up with. As much as I roll my eyes at media egos who get flustered and overreact to negativity online, and threaten to block anyone who as much as disagrees with their opinions, I have a great deal of sympathy for people like Tubridy who probably have to deal with a relentless stream of ignorant drivel from people who feel they’re entitled to bash someone just because they’re on TV. Can you imagine all of your online communication being constantly disrupted by people telling you you’re shit, insulting you, threatening you, slagging you off, attacking you with extremely personal remarks on either your professionalism or appearance? Can you imagine what that’s like to deal with day in day out? Why on earth should anyone put up with that?

I often think that trolling happens to people who put themselves out there, but stalking and harassment can happen to anyone. Sometimes there is no reason for someone being harassed and/or stalked other than the instability of the harasser or the stalker. We all know someone who has been in these weird situations, be it through jealousy or obsession, or just pure randomness.

So I suppose there are three levels of things that people describe as trolling. The first isn’t trolling at all, it’s the milder end of the scale made up of insults or people shouting DICKHEAD into their keyboard and not caring about the impact it might have on their target reading it. Those people are just ignorant. Sure, we all bitch online, but we need to think about what we’re saying more, and put ourselves in the shoes of those at the receiving end, even if they are rich or celebrities or whatever, and even if we think that random insults are the collateral damages of being known. The second category is actual trolling: the persistent and purposeful posting of comments designed to elicit an emotional response or argument. And then there’s the third type: harassment, the likes of which Leo Traynor experienced. It should not be tolerated, and I would question the psychological well-being of anyone who perpetrates it.

But trolls aren’t just 17-year-old boys who burst into tears when confronted. They are smart professional people like the person who set up the parody Twitter account of me. They are politicians. They are grown ups and civil servants and jilted musicians and students and men and women. They are our mates and frenemies, bloggers, lonely people and sociable people. They are people who aren’t vindictive in any other area of their lives apart from online. We need to call them all on their behaviour. But ultimately, they need to examine themselves in order to discover what personality deficit leads them to talk smack about someone or become so twisted that they view harassment as a game.