I woke up this morning to the mainstream news services reporting the apparent suicide of Brenda Leyland, who had been undertaking some particularly enthusiastic and novel trolling of the McCann family on twitter. Trolling is a phrase that gets massively misused in the mainstream media; in it’s strict sense it means:
Make a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.
The definition is courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary. When I was a lad, trolling could be fairly innocuous- you might attempt to derail a thread on the latest Playstation game by mentioning the Playstation was just a glorified add-on for the Nintendo 64 that never got made (Sony had started off their trek into consoles by designing a CD add-on peripheral for the N64 that eventually morphed into the Playstation), or something equally general that didn’t target a specific person. Now days trolling is reported as a specific part of online harassment/bullying and is used interchangeably with those two phrases when it isn’t really.
As part of my sociology degree back in ’96, I wrote a grandly titled dissertation called “Computer mediated communication and reinvention of the self.” The paper looked at how the likes of Nigel, a mild mannered computer science undergrad, could morph into “d3Ath5ta1k3R” (deathstalker) online and completely reinvent who he was and how people perceived him. Today it all seems like common sense but back then, with the web still in it’s infancy, and most of the established internet being conducted on Usenet and IRC chat relays, it was all a bit more fresh. I got a good mark for it and even applied for a PhD in Singapore in a related area (which I didn’t get funding for so didn’t do). The idea that people online could and can behave completely differently to how they do in the real world has always fascinated me. There was an interesting parallel in one of the Malazan Book of the Fallen novels I recently read, where one of the characters, an immortal named Kallor, related that his wife had committed suicide when he suggested he make her immortal and able to enjoy an eternity of excess with no limitations rather than put herself in the temptation of all that she might do. In a sense, trolling people online is a lot like having a eternity of excess to look forward to; until it crosses over into the real world, you have no repercussions to deal with.
Although online bullying isn’t necessarily only psychological, a combination of perceived anonymity and a complete lack of appreciation of a human being at the other end of the harassment, mean that all sorts of people can and do start saying and posting some unbelievably vile stuff online. There was a recent story that was posted on the site Reddit and widely reported in the press about a woman who found out her partner was posting some really nasty stuff online. You can read more about it here. Suffice to say, none of it was nice:
It made me wonder what else he did on the internet, so I looked at the browser history to find him also harassing teenagers on tumblr. Telling them to kill themselves, calling cute girls ugly and fat and stupid, etc. It horrified me to think this was the man who could be raising our daughter with me in a few months.
The chilling part of the woman’s post on the subject though was her partners response to her accusations. These show a disturbing lack of empathy for others, something that perhaps is worsened by the medium he and others like Brenda Leyland use to abuse others:
He said he trolled/bullied people because it was an outlet for him to relieve stress. He said he didn’t view the people as real, or what he was doing as anything other than a joke, and if it hurt feelings, “those people have bigger problems and it’s not my fault.
Bullying people online is a bit like going on a spending spree with a new credit card; initially there are ramifications to what you do but in the long term things can get very bad indeed. A person I was acquainted with from my time at university was recently given a custodial sentence for encourage minors to commit acts of indecency, and whilst this is an extreme case, it is probably the tip of the iceberg in terms of cases actually making it to court and something positive being done about it. There are a depressingly regular number of reports over some teenager killing themselves because the amount of online bullying has reached the point they can’t cope any more.
In the case of Brenda Leyland, it looks like the abuse she received after she was doorstepped by Sky News last week very much crossed over into the real world, with reports saying she had fled her home and was living in a hotel once the report was aired. Whether any physical threats to her were real or imagined are in a sense moot and although no definitive link has been established between her suicide and her involvement in trolling the McCanns, it would appear to be more than coincidental.
Of course online abuse can cross over into the “real” world very easily, whether it’s bullying at school in addition to online, or the rather frightening practice of “swatting” that seems at the moment to be restricted to America. Swatting basically involves making bogus emergency service calls via a spoofed phone number that results in the victims house being raided by an armed response unit who think their is either gun an armed murderer or some sort of serious crime going on in the house. Swatting is nothing new, the first recorded instances dating back to 2008 but with the rise of streaming video services like Twitch, it seems to be on the increase.
Moving forwards the best way to try and deal with this sort of behaviour is to try and prevent it rather than punish it. The simple act of showing people how relatively easy it is to pierce the veil of perceived online anonymity is probably going to dissuade well over 90% of the people that seem to get involved in this sort of persecution. Education of what the victims go through will probably deal with most of the rest, leaving just the hardcore psychopaths who would find an outlet regardless.