‘You are truly disgusting. You deserve the biggest karmic kick in the face’, was just one of the insults fired at Jack Monroe, after she waded into the #CameronMustGo twitterstorm in November 2014 – and one of the few that is actually suitable to share with you here. Sure, the food blogger and Guardian writer’s Twitter feed is never dull, (between budget recipes, you’ll typically find some full-flavoured opinions), but whatever your view, there has to be a way of expressing it without becoming debased, threatening and abusive.
Or so you would have thought. Despite the fact we all agree trolling is unacceptable, it actually appears to be on the rise. During 2014 alone? The abuse of Caroline Criado-Perez for campaigning to get Austen on the £5 note, the bullying of Zelda Williams after her father’s death, and the rape threats made against Jessica Ennis-Hill after stating she would leave the board if footballer Ched Evans was allowed to play again for Sheffield United.
And there’s an even darker world, which isn’t always highlighted by the media, that’s also worth considering. The endless cyber-bullying that led 14 year-old ‘Amnesia’ to take her own life, the despicable grooming, stalking and sexting that can jump from online to offline within hours. The police force has openly admitted that they just don’t have the resources to cope and with new technological developments, culprits are getting harder to find.
One such virtual hideout for predators is ‘The Tor’. Ironically first created by the US military to protect national security, this so called ‘Dark Net’, accessible only by specialist equipment, is now known to be used by paedophiles and sex criminals for exchanging illicit images and information. Through the use of encryption technology and proxy servers to hide their IP addresses, criminals are able to make themselves anonymous and their computers untraceable. Shockingly, 20% of the ‘producers’ of this content, (those actually taking the pictures or videos and therefore carrying out the abuse) are thought to be from the UK.
Police clearly need new tactics to shine a light into the web’s darkest corners, while Twitter’s functionality enabling users to block individual accounts is ineffectual for the likes of Catlin Moran: ‘on a big troll day, it can be 50 violent/rape messages an hour’, she tweeted. Moderating systems that filter comments on websites can be helpful to an extent, but abuse doesn’t always use the profane language that gets picked up, and some sites like the Guardian can receive up to 40,000 comments a day – a volume that’s almost impossible to track manually.
So while the corporate giants and boys in blue are getting up to speed, what can we do about abuse online? On a basic level, if you spot any criminal content online you can report it to the Internet Watch Foundation, or the CEOP. On Twitter there are numerous tactics: one, (preferred by Jack Monroe) is to RT the abuse so her followers can see it and respond, though clearly this may aggravate the issue. Another wildcard option, (famously employed by classicist, Mary Beard), is to befriend the troller believing that abuse is often borne out of resentment, isolation or plain idiocy – though this is far from easy.
Jean-Paul Flintoff, author of How to Change the World published by the School of Life, reminds us that whatever communication is thrown your way, ‘you’re in control and it’s up to you how you respond’ – an empowering thought, though all too easy to forget when you’re shocked, thrown or intimidated. ‘Naming the problem is a fundamental first step’ he continues, ‘so even talking about the abuse as a bystander is helping to highlight the problem’. But what about if you want to do more, such as volunteering or setting up a support group?
‘Sometimes beginning a project can feel like an awful lot of work, which can put you off from even starting. It’s worth remembering that you don’t have to do everything. If it’s going to bring about change, it’s going to need other people anyway, so make a start, find out what others think and let them take it forward’, he says.
Despite the bleak state of affairs which is online abuse, there’s much to feel positive about too. In 2014, Twitter announced updates to its blocking functionality that make it easier to report harassment, and Facebook is well signposted for reporting abuse on the social networking site, even if you don’t have an account. However, in the case of Daniel Hegglin – a victim of extreme internet trolling – Google openly attempted to shift responsibility. Google’s QC, Anthony White made the outrageous statement: “Google provides search services to millions of people and cannot be responsible for policing internet content”.
Yet even Google was forced to settle out of court in the landmark case and make significant efforts to remove abusive material about Hegglin from any Google search, (a day of hope for anyone who’s been trolled or wondered why the ‘digligarchs’ aren’t doing more to help). And despite the bullies, it’s worth remembering that now we indeed have Austen on our fivers (two of the culprits were also jailed), Evans was forced to leave Sheffield United, (partly thanks to Jen Ennis), and that although Zelda Williams did abandon social media for a time, she is now back online. Take that cyber bullies!