Defending the freedom of trolls to troll

Just because an Oz celeb received a few nasty comments on Twitter, that is no reason to regulate free speech online.

Theresa Clifford

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Topics Politics

Back in May, the fashion world created headlines over a Twitterstorm between Charlotte Dawson, an expat New Zealand TV presenter and judge on Australia’s Next Top Model, and fashion bloggers Bryan Grey-Yambao, (pseudonym: Bryanboy) and Patty Huntington.

During a Twitter conversation about whether fashion bloggers should be given tickets to fashion shows, Dawson tweeted ‘somebody please kill Bryanboy… Please, please, please.’ Fashion blogger Patty Huntington then alerted Bryanboy to the ‘death threat’, to which he responded: ‘I’m really scared’ followed by ‘on the phone to the police’ and then ‘so scared of this unhinged lunatic’.

The next day on the Sunrise breakfast TV show, Dawson made light of the Twitterstorm, explaining that bloggers need to be able to take as well as give abuse. ‘Bloggers write horrible things all the time’, she said, ‘but when someone they have attacked answers back, they get all jazz hands about it and say everyone is being horrible to them’. Dawson said that while she was regularly insulted online, she never took it too seriously.

That is good advice. So how come this week Dawson was admitted to the Emergency Psychiatric Care Unit at St Vincent’s Hospitals in Sydney amid calls from Australian politicians, police and media experts to legislate against ‘cyber-bullying’?

Dawson’s hospitalisation followed a Twitterstorm where hundreds of so-called trolls attacked her for naming and shaming someone called Tanya Heti as a cyber-bully. The Twitter war started after Bernadette Casey, one of Dawson’s Twitter followers, defended a tweet by Dawson which referenced suicide. When Casey tweeted that she had lost her partner to suicide, Heti responded with: ‘if I was your fiancé I’d hang myself too #gohangyourself.’ In response Dawson set out to expose Heti using the University of Monash business card Heti had posted online. Following Dawson reporting her to the university, Heti was subsequently suspended from her mentoring job. Dawson then appeared on the TV shows A Current Affair and The Project to defend her exposure of cyber-bullying, declaring it ‘an important lesson in consequences when people decide to mock or encourage suicide’.

After Dawson’s TV appearances, hundreds of tweeters took aim once again. In more than 100 messages, which Dawson re-tweeted on her own page, trolls told the celebrity to ‘neck yourself you filthy slut’ and ‘please put your face in a toaster’. Dawson signed off with the message ‘you win x’, along with a picture of a hand holding pills at 2.07am. At 3am that same morning, Dawson was taken to hospital.

Despite her hospitalisation, Dawson still managed to give an exclusive interview to 60 Minutes just hours later. In the interview, Dawson said she had been pushed to the very brink ‘by these creeps’: ‘I’ve never had death threats of this ferocity’, she said, ‘it just triggered that feeling of helplessness when the trolls got to me’. Dawson was released two days later and is now staying with friends.

During this whole episode, Dawson has received overwhelming support for her ‘troll-busting’ action. News Limited, Australia’s largest media conglomerate, even has asked members of the public to help identify the trolls who threatened and harassed Dawson.

Over the last few days, there have been many calls for changes to current laws – or for new tougher laws – that would better protect people from cyber-bullying and harassment. Chair of the Australian Federal Coalition’s online safety working group ‘Paul Fletcher’ said: ‘The online hate campaign against Dawson was shocking and the sad experience of Charlotte Dawson is another indicator of the importance of a close look at the laws in this area.’ The Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has urged Twitter to be accountable and take its international complaints seriously. The Australian crisis support service Lifeline has also questioned the diligence of social media in monitoring cyber-bullying.

Taking things up a notch, the New South Wales police minister Mike Gallacher called for the trolls to be ‘dragged out of their mother’s basement and put before a court. These are sick minds we’re dealing with.’ He went on: ‘Even a cursory examination of the comments made to Ms Dawson overnight reveals they are clearly offensive to a reasonable person, which is the test for any prosecution under the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act’ (that is, the use of a ‘carriage service’ to menace, harass or offend, which can result in a maximum three-year jail term).

So why has the response to the Dawson furore shifted from a jokey ‘take it on the chin’ to calls for arrests and jail sentences for cyber-bullies? A cynic might point out that this Twitterstorm comes at a time when the anti-bullying foundation Community Brave, for which Dawson is an ambassador, is stepping up its online campaign #SayNoToBullying.

However, it is more likely that Dawson has been caught up in the dominant political culture of our times, which encourages adults and children alike to see themselves as helpless and in need of state protection. The problem with the intellectual framework of cyber-bullying is that it views internet users as vulnerable victims rather than as capable individuals who can deal with and can negotiate their way through difficult situations.

There are two issues that are thrown up by the Dawson Twitterstorm. The first is the rise of the celebrity troll-hunter, whereby someone with a modicum of fame will help to spotlight and expose Twitter trolls. But Dawson should have learnt by now that you shouldn’t feed the trolls. By re-tweeting their negative comments she has ended up giving them more publicity.

Dawson seems to have convinced herself that she has survived an actual hurricane rather than a Twitterstorm in which few pathetic trolls have posted some horrible things to her. As has been pointed out elsewhere on spiked, there are plenty of ways of dealing with trolls without inviting the law to intervene: you can develop a thick skin and just ignore the abuse; you can use the block button on Twitter; or you can give as good as you get.

The second and more important issue is around free speech and the increasing calls for state regulation of the internet. Like the World Wide Web, free speech is for everyone – even trolls. Dawson should know this more than anyone. She herself is not opposed to posting ‘offensive’ comments as can be seen by her recent description of New Zealand as ‘small, nasty and vindictive’.

Any attack on freedom of speech online is immeasurably more harmful than puerile abuse from a few internet trolls. The action of a small group of trolls should not be used as an excuse to curb our internet freedoms. Whether you agree with trolls’ remarks or not, you should defend their right to, well, troll.

Theresa Clifford is a digital strategist currently based in Auckland. Visit her website here. Follow her on Twitter @TheresaClifford.

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Topics Politics