Taming the trolls: Can abusive online commenters be held to account?

Opinion: Reaction to racial abuse of six-year-old after Toy Show poses conundrum

The original definition of online “trolling” – deliberate espousal of the most outrageous views to elicit a reaction of any sort – has mutated over recent years, so that the word is now used to describe all kinds of ugly behaviour on the internet.

The original definition of online “trolling” – deliberate espousal of the most outrageous views to elicit a reaction of any sort – has mutated over recent years, so that the word is now used to describe all kinds of ugly behaviour on the internet.

 

When Mark Reddy spoke this week about the abuse posted on social media following his six-year-old daughter Lara’s performance on the The Late Late Toy Show, nearly everybody would have sympathised with him.

But some might also have wondered whether it was wise to give publicity to a few twisted internet trolls who would otherwise have remained largely unknown. It’s one of the conundrums which arise when we discuss what, if anything, needs to be done about online hate speech.

During her appearance on the show, Lara, who was born in Vietnam, sang My Little Pony and the Disney favourite Let it Go. Her father said he was “appalled and upset” about some of the racist abuse with sexual overtones which he saw after the show ended.

The original definition of online “trolling” – deliberate espousal of the most outrageous views to elicit a reaction of any sort – has mutated over recent years, so that the word is now used to describe all kinds of ugly behaviour on the internet. The riddle which the original form of trolling posed was that by reacting in any way, you were “feeding the troll”.

Misogynistic streak

Researchers at the University of Manitoba have described the practice of trolling as an “internet manifestation of everyday sadism”, and wrote that “sadists tend to troll because they enjoy it”. As author Rosalyn Warren pointed out recently in The Irish Times, there is also a strongly misogynistic streak to trolling, with women disproportionately experiencing the worst attacks.

However, the spread of smartphones and social media has hugely expanded the proportion of the population which publishes content on the internet, and has changed the dynamics of online discourse. The original trolls are still out there, but they’ve been joined by many other people who, for whatever reason, don’t understand or don’t care about the impact of what they’re writing.

The reality is that most people wrongly believe the online world is unregulated and unaccountable. They also have an entirely misplaced faith in their ability to remain anonymous. As a result, some think they can post whatever they like online without fear of consequences, while those affected by abuse believe they have no chance of redress. Add to that the fact that politicians are one of the groups particularly affected by online abuse, and it’s not surprising that politicians such as Labour Senator Lorraine Higgins, the victim of appalling abuse on social media, have proposed legislation specifically aimed at online abuse.

Unregulated anarchy

A contrary view is that laws on hate speech, harassment and bullying are already in place and apply as much online as they do anywhere else. But, unlike in the UK, we’ve seen few high-profile cases successfully taken here, so the impression of unregulated anarchy continues to prevail. Part of the difficulty may be that the sheer volume of content which is now published on digital platforms engenders a feeling of helplessness, and that the forms of legal or regulatory redress available seem intimidating or over-complex to the average person.

Until recently, most members of the public could expect to go through their lives without ever having anything written about them. Now broadcasters and other media companies aggressively promote “second screen” interactions and real-time commenting as part of their users’ experience. Appear on primetime television and you’re suddenly fair game for the haters – even if you’re a six-year-old singing My Little Pony.

The Late Late Toy Show is the most popular programme of the year on Irish television, with almost 1.36 people tuning in last Friday. Logically, therefore, thousands of idiots, racists, thugs and the congenitally bewildered, not to mention those under the influence of drink or drugs, would have been watching. You only needed to look at the Twitter hashtag feed for the show to see the results were not always pleasant. Full-time broadcasters know this, which is why primetime TV presenters tend to stay away from social media, leaving the tweeting and Facebooking duties to their production teams.

Some of the comments you’ll see on these feeds are clearly defamatory or illegal. Others are just coarse or objectionable. The vast majority are completely harmless and well-intentioned. That does not mitigate the very real pain and distress caused by such material. And it’s certainly worth considering whether the people who engage in these activities are being held often enough to account, either by the legal system or by the platforms which they use to publish.

“Sometimes you have to challenge these things, it’s not fair and it’s not right,” Mark Reddy told Ryan Tubridy this week. It’s very hard to disagree.

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