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Don't feed the trolls

By Bruce Arnold - posted Monday, 22 October 2012


It is moral panic time again in debate about social network services such as Facebook. This month we have seen expressions of outrage about potential prejudice to a fair trial through postings about the alleged murderer of Jill Meagher. We have also seen the outing by hacktivists of a particularly nasty troll in the US, calls for strong new legislation to criminalise trolling and criticism that Australian police are not using their power to clean up the services.

Anxieties about social networking are not new. Prior to the internet people fretted about networking by freemasons, communists or the National Civic Council. They also voiced discontent about new communication mechanisms and genres such as cinema, radio, television and comic books. Facebook is not unique: along with other digital services it is a screen onto which we project fear, anger, uncertainty and loathing. Our expression of discontents and aspirations does not necessarily bear much relationship to what is happening on the screen and in the streets.

If we are thinking about discontents, let's not look at the collective grieving in which Australians mourning Jill Meagher emulated the British hysteria over the death of Princess Di. Let's look instead at three perspectives on trolling in social network services and recent calls for a strong legal fix or action by the police.

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Expressions of hatred, fear and cruelty are not restricted to 'new media'. Bullying is just as powerful when it involves a statement in the broadsheets or airwaves by Cory Bernardi, George Pell, Alan Jones or Jim Wallace. Much online trolling by spotty teenagers or ethically-challenged adults is indistinguishable from the hatespeech by people in authority. Those people might be expected to exercise restraint and be conscious of harms such as discrimination, assaults and self-injury that are attributable, for example, to characterisations of gay people and relationships as wrong, unnatural and undeserving of full legal personhood (ie the ability to marry).

Speech by those figures sends a message about society's expectations regarding civility. We cannot seriously expect trolls to behave nicely if leaders are engaged in verbal violence such as 'lighthearted' suggestions that prominent women be placed in a sack for dumping at sea and if an audience of the 'best and brightest' doesn't signal its contempt by walking out on Alan Jones or pelting him with bread rolls. What is truly shameful about the Liberal Club dinner is that his audience failed to speak.

A second perspective is that we in fact do not need new law; particularly law that criminalises any unpleasantness online and that, like sexting, may capture bad-mannered teenagers.

At the national and state/territory levels there is a wide range of laws. There is scope for example under national law regarding misuse of telecommunication services. That law has been used for offensive online behaviour and thus is not merely a gesture. At the state level potential responses include law regarding stalking, which contrary to the view of some people does not involve physical harassment or recurrent phone calls just as the baby goes to sleep. Law also features restrictions on ethno-religious vilification and defamation. Adding a new 'anti-troll' law that covers one or more jurisdictions will give politicians a nice media opportunity but is not necessary and adds an undesirable complication. We should be wary about lawmaking that is based on political opportunism and polling rather than real need.

The police cannot and should not be everywhere, so criticisms that they are inactive are misplaced. We could expect social network operators to exercise some restraint, given that they have control over their services. They do have the legal authority, under their terms & conditions, to both monitor and expunge venomous postings or delete trolls from their list of users. They should indeed do so, rather than shifting costs to the police or relying on claims that cyberspace is a realm where US values of free speech – the foundation of a global lex informatica – free service operators from the costs of responsibility.

Australia does not have a comprehensive right of free expression online, in print, in parks, in shopping centres or Adelaide mall. Not all speech is political. Little trolling would be strongly protected under the implied freedom of political communication. That freedom does not provide an exemption for corporate indifference. Although we might enjoy the outing of trolls and other bullies we should be wary about the online vigilantism that is to be promoted as an appropriate response to the nastiness of anonymous trolls. Where does it stop? Trolls? Political opponents? Claims about the partners, children and parents of political opponents, corporate executives and civil society advocates?

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The third perspective is the most challenging. In a liberal democratic state we need to cope with things that are unpleasant. We cannot all be cottonwool kids. If we are living in the digital 'attention economy' one response to hate is to not feed the trolls. Do not grace Alan Jones – and his partners - with your ears and dollars. Do not give online nasties the attention that they crave. Do not exacerbate injury – and validate trolls – through an exaggerated response when minors undergo bullying in social network spaces. Part of being a good parent/custodian in 'the Age of Facebook' is encouraging young people to be resilient. It is also about teaching minors not to fly off the handle when they encounter something they do not like. What is disturbing about much online interaction is that the partners and friends of public figures are being seen to vent online rather than keeping their fingers away from the keyboards. That energises the trolls and delights the journalists (nothing like an expose of what one outraged wife tweeted a few months ago) but sets a poor example for those down the digital foodchain. Do not panic. Do not feed the trolls.

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About the Author

Bruce Arnold is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Canberra.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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