Like most decent people I'm disgusted by the lack of civility online in some quarters. This issue has been in the news a lot in Australia recently due to celebrity Charlotte Dawson's breakdown following a barrage of twitter abuse suggesting she kill herself.
While I understand how easy it is to get caught up in this kind of thing and lose perspective, particularly for those who are fragile and lacking in self-esteem, I'm much more disturbed by the comments made by NSW police minister Mike Gallagher who recently stated that people who post offensive messages should be arrested.
"These are sick minds we're dealing with," he said yesterday. "I'd be interested to see if they're still tough guys when they're in handcuffs."
In contrast with Dawson's ordeal, this overreaction has received very little attention in the media. If being an asshole has become an indictable offence I think our jails are going to start filling up very quickly. Are we all so completely juvenile that we have to call on the principal to break up our online fights? What ever happened to just ignoring the idiots? They thrive on attention and when you don't give it to them they go away and find someone who will.
I checked out Charlotte Dawson's twitter account and the abusive messages were clearly from a few dickheads who created new accounts purely to harrass her. There are many nutters out there and this is not a new phenomenon, social media has just given these people more opportunities to stir up trouble and express their sick thoughts. The best way of dealing with them is to hit the block button. That's what it's there for.
It's so easy to focus on the trolls, but surely Dawson has to take some responsibility for feeding them and playing their game? She's a grown woman in the media spotlight,and the attention that comes with this is not always positive.
When I saw that the Murdoch owned Daily Telegraph and the most obnoxious bully on the airwaves, Alan Jones, had seized on this and other recent events to back the launch of a campaign called #StopTheTrolls, my suspicious nature kicked in. They are using public figures like surfer Laura Enever to endorse the campaign, and she has joined the chorus because apparently:
"All it takes is for Enever to post a photo of herself and the trolls come out with nasty comments about her being too thin and unhealthy."
Well lock them up and throw away the key! I don't mean to denigrate Enever, but this scrutiny comes with being in the public eye, and it is perfectly legal and acceptable when practiced by journalists and women's magazines.
There was another article in the Daily Telegraph on this subject yesterday and towards the end it noted that police in US are also starting to crack down on "trolls," referring to the case of a man involved in the Occupy protest movement who has been charged with civil disobedience (I can't find the link on DT's website). The police are putting pressure on Twitter to release three months of the man's tweets, and threatening them with hefty fines if they refuse. (Edit: According to this report Twitter have since released the tweets to a New York Judge.)
This is clearly not a case of 'trolling' or bullying as it is being discussed in the article. It is a very different matter altogether, and the fact that it is conflated in the paper is very revealing. I can't help but wonder if this is the real motive behind the campaign against online bullying for Alan Jones and Rupert Murdoch? Are these "cultural warriors" trying to create a climate which will make it acceptable to bring in laws that further errode online privacy because these laws can also be used to quell political dissent? The only solution to "stopping" the trolls rather than simply "blocking" them, which is what the campaign is calling for, is to get rid of online privacy. This means placing complete faith in our governments and leaders that this information will not be used for their own purposes.
Issues like bullying and terrorism create an instant knee-jerk reaction in many, and laws to address these problems seem like common sense. These are not simple issues, however, and I believe that anyone who values freedom should be very, very concerned about any attempts to censor the internet and errode privacy. In my opinion it is far better to put up with the juvenile comments of trolls and morons than to have the internet strictly policed by those with their own agenda. What makes it even more infuriating is that Jones and his ilk believe they should be free to spew their bile and venom down the airwaves unimpeded, and it's only the unwashed masses that need to be pulled into line!
After writing this post I saw a news reports about protests over the offensive American film about Muhammad, and I immediately thought about the subject of trolls. I believe that whoever made this film did it to upset people, and in a sense they can be compared to online trolls. By participating in violent clashes, the protesters are playing right into these people's hands. This is exactly what they want. The reaction of protestors is only confirming what many already believe about Islam, and it will persuade those who did not think this already that this is a terrible, violent religion.
Many people will not stop to consider the simmering resentment felt towards the US after years of war and intervention which has turned the whole region into a powder keg ready to explode. They will only see the crazed expressions and violent actions of Muslim protesters, and their judgements will be based on these things alone. Here is a great article on the tensions that underlie these protests and which are largely ignored in the media.
As a supporter of free speech I defend filmmakers right to make films about anything they want, but the fact that the origins of the film aren't clear makes it suspect in my opinion. I can't believe that Obama has not publicly distanced himself from it and pointed out that just because it was made in America it doesn't represent the views of all Americans. Islam is obviously a very touchy subject and he probably doesn't want to alienate any voters so close to an election, but his actions are spineless and completely lacking in integrity in my opinion (Edit: I've since found out that Obama did actually did condemn this film: “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, but there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence. None,” said Obama". It took me a while to find this quote though as most news stories don't report it.)
The message is clear, don't feed the trolls, whether they be the online variety, rabid right-wing media pundits and moguls, or so-called filmmakers whose aim is to propagate hatred and intolerance.
BTW Desires of the Flesh (Eternal Hunger #1) is free today!