There was a time when the police paid no attention to anything posted on the web. In the United Kingdom, at least, that time is past. Over the last few months I have seen a series of stories, where offline people have called for the police to arrest trolls. Routinely, now, the police are acting.
This week we have been hearing about a certain Frank Zimmerman, a man of 60, who posted abuse of a Conservative MP, Louise Mensch, demanding that she stop using twitter or else:
Zimmerman targeted Mensch following last summer’s riots when the MP suggested that sites such as Twitter ought to be closed down if the police thought it necessary. …
Addressing the Corby MP as the “slut of Twitter”, Zimmerman said: “We are Anonymous and we do not like rude cunts like you and your nouveau riche husband Peter Mensch. We are inside your computer, all your phones everywhere and inside your homes.
“So get off Twitter. We see you are still on Twitter. We have sent a camera crew to photograph you and your kids and we will post it over the net including Twitter, cuntface. You now have Sophie’s Choice: which kid is to go. One will. Count on it cunt. Have a nice day.”
Charming stuff, and doubtless anonymous, or so he thought: the police found otherwise. The judge has said that “he could be imprisoned for up to six months”.
I have no opinions either way on Mrs Mensch. The question is whether, in a free society, such speech should be punished by the courts.
Zimmerman himself, of course, does NOT believe in free speech — his troll, of course, was composed to intimidate Louise Mensch from using Twitter. Trolls engage in this kind of activity all the time, and Wikipedia trolls take great pleasure in getting rid of genuine contributors.
The words are supposed to contain a death threat. I admit that, in my innocence, the case would seem unproven. The malice is unmistakable, of course; but I myself would have read that as a threat to post material about one of the children. The jury found otherwise, of course.
It is old law that death threats are a criminal offence. I admit that I see no reason to change this long-standing custom. It is for this, certainly, that Zimmerman should be sentenced.
For the rest? I’m not sure.
A troll is a vile creature. His purpose is to injure others, usually from a position of anonymity. He is no different, morally, from a man who visits a nightclub for the purpose of beating up some unsuspecting fellow who went there for a drink and a dance. His methods are the misuse of modern communications to inflict pain, rather than his fists, but the pain is equally real, and the victim may well be even less able to defend himself, as many trolls, like bullies everywhere, blame the victim if he complains of assault.
Law in the United Kingdom is increasingly unsympathetic to trolls. Today I read of a legal first, where the victim has won a High Court action to force Facebook to reveal the identities of her tormentors.
Nicola Brookes, 45, was targeted by internet trolls after posting message of support for X-Factor contestant Frankie Cocozza
The mother, who doesn’t even watch X-Factor, wrote message supporting singer on his official Facebook page after her daughter showed her his page
Abusers created fake profile with her picture and posted sick messages to lure young girls
The single mother is the first person ever to bring a court case privately to track down those who abused her
She was forced to take action after police refused to intervene
Despite the abuse, Nicola is STILL on Facebook
Not being a Conservative MP, Nicola Brookes was obliged to undertake a private prosecution. Sussex Police were unsure that any crime had been committed, and who can blame them? The situation is indeed profoundly unclear. But the victim certainly suffered injury. This was internet violence; the false accusation designed to defame.
The action has all sorts of interesting consequences from a free speech point of view:
Ms Bains, a partner at Bains Cohen, the legal firm which is bringing the action, said: ‘The police do have the ability and the resources to find out who is responsible for this type of abuse.
‘The order that was granted from the High Court was called a Norwich Pharmacal Order which is a disclosure order compelling Facebook to give us whatever information they have.
‘We don’t know how useful that information is going to be until we have it.
‘It may turn out to be fake. If that’s the case, it will be the internet service providers (ISPs) who will be most useful to us because they will hold the bill-payers’ addresses and we will have to get a further order.’
None will blame Mrs Brookes. But what we see here is that criminals — for these trolls are certainly criminals in their behaviour and attitudes, whether or not their actions are technically illegal — are forcing the state to create the means to regulate what appears online. The state never had that power. Soon it will. The troll, as ever, is a curse on the web.
A BBC article states bluntly:
There are growing demands for action over internet “trolling”.
BBC presenter Richard Bacon states:
I’ve spent three months immersed in the world of cyberbullying and internet “trolling”. Recently there has been a massive explosion of it. …
As I delved deeper, it turned out that the level of vitriol I was receiving was mild by comparison with what hundreds, probably thousands, of people around the UK are subjected to daily. Hourly.
Imagine you’re the parent of a child who has died in tragic circumstances and you’re reading a tribute site dedicated to their memory. Underneath the comments from friends and acquaintances, you stumble upon graphic, violent and sexual abuse from people writing under pretend names. People who their deceased child never even knew.
This sort of article is creating the climate for more official action. A further BBC article links it to cyber-bullying — correctly — and mentions suicides of victims. The link is real. For internet sites such as Facebook and Wikipedia set out to be compelling; the troll takes advantage of this to keep pummelling his victim, knowing that he or she will keep coming back for another punch, like one addicted.
On Wikipedia, indeed, searching for victims who have returned and adopted a new user name (and then banning them for “sock-puppeting”) is part of the sport for the trolls. The jeering at those who are unable to stay away is sickening, when you realise what it must mean in terms of the victim’s pain and addiction.
I’ve been on the web since 1997. It is certainly true that the web today is a much nastier place than it was. The “trolling” that took place in usenet news groups back in those days was malicious too, but it did not have the nastiness that I see everywhere today. I would agree that the last few years have seen a huge upsurge in this kind of thing.
Anonymity must take responsibility for much of this. People post what they would never say in person, or under their own name.
Yet … there is a real risk that, in dealing with these scum, we will all lose something. I have nothing against Mrs Mensch, but I don’t see any reason why — death threats aside — those who dislike her shouldn’t call her names. Our politicians do not deserve overmuch respect, nor our journalists, and both are well-equipped with lawyers and policemen. Few ordinary people could get much redress, if such abuse was delivered to our very faces.
But we, the people, the taxpayer and voter, do deserve some respect, and the right of the people to abuse a politician is also a long-standing one. It is not so very long ago that candidates in Scottish elections were accustomed to being spat at, during hustings, with the consequence that both candidates were likely to end the day covered in spittle.
Anyone who has suffered at the hands of a troll will cheer as these individuals are brought, blinking, out into the light and sentenced. Yet there is a risk that, in dealing with these vermin, all of our liberties will be compromised. I do not much relish the idea that bloggers must think about policemen and libel actions in the way that newspapers must. But where the line may be drawn I cannot say.
- Augustine Birrell refers to this charmless custom somewhere in his works, but I do not have a reference immediately to hand.↩