TBIJ: Anti-Social Network: the Rise of a Cyber-Bullying Epidemic

20Mar12

Anti-Social Network: the Rise of a Cyber-Bullying Epidemic

March 20th, 2012 | by  | Published in All StoriesBureau Recommends

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“It all started, I was just on Facebook when I was drunk” said Damon Richards, a notorious cyber troll who cut his teeth in the world of online bullying by pasting a photo of a penis atop the microphone in a picture of Susan Boyle singing. Having a laugh online “can be slightly addictive,” he admits to presenter Richard Bacon in the BBC documentary Anti-Social Network, and it can degenerate into a terrifying new breed of 21st century misanthropes called “RIP Trolls.”
Tom Mullany a was lively 15-year-old boy with no history of being bullied, but all it took to shred his world apart was one night with 12 threatening Facebook messages from 6 of his classmates. His father found him in the shed at the back of the garden, hanged.  He was cyber-lynched to suicide. After the devastated Mullany family set up an online tribute page in Tom’s loving memory, the site went viral in the RIP troll community and they swiftly desecrate it with a barrage of nasty comments – “cold and stiff :D” – and photo-shopped images of Tom with a lasso around his neck, or his decapitated head in a sliced sausage with caption “RIP Tom Baloney.”

The power of the written word
With a camera framed tightly around his face, Damond Richards is confronted with nasty homosexual comments left on Tom Mullany’s RIP site by one of his online aliases. What do the micro-expressions twitching in his brow reveal? Does he understand the emotional damage caused by his comments? Would he be capable of uttering those words in person to Mullany’s family? Would they be as hurtful in person or is the destructiveness of trolling the very fact that written words, magnified by the internet for all to see, hold special powers? Should such abuse, keyboard-clicked into cyber-space, qualify as a hate crime? Are trolls actually physically dangerous or do they merely make the unlucky youth on whom they fasten their gallows humour a danger to themselves? How can the murky line between freedom of speech, boorish teasing and suicide-inducing insults be defined by laws? These are all urgent ethical questions for an era where the slow-moving legal system fail utterly to keep up with fast-evolving technology.

Troll hunters
Online bullying from peers is not only driving ordinary youth to suicide, but anonymous trolls are celebrating those deaths in what could only be equated to the chat-room equivalent of snuff videos. While it’s hardly surprising to see schoolyard bullying migrate to Facebook, RIP trolling is something darker, weirder almost like the symptom of some new 21st century cyber-induced psychosis.

RIP trolls, according to a “troll hunter” interviewed anonymously in this documentary, daily scour the papers and internet for news of dead children and babies, and if there’s no RIP page on which to shower abuse – often obscene and sexually explicit – they’ll set one up for the purpose.

For over two years, Richard Bacon has had an obsessive cyber-stalker who disseminates his darkest, most hateful fantasies about the TV and radio personality’s death via anonymous twitter and Facebook accounts. When the troll started attacking Bacon’s wife and newborn child, he decided to try and hunt him down and make a documentary about why Britain’s trolls seem to have recently gone into overdrive. Bacon interviews a wide array of voices: teenage girls who have had to go on anti-depressants, parents who have lost their children, celebrities who fought back and were flooded with solidarity, councillors, psychiatrists, and people who have taken it upon themselves to fill in for the lack of regulation and accountability online.

The prevalence of cyber-bulling
It is not made clear how many RIP Trolls might be out there, after all, a hand full of morbid people with multiple identities and lots of time to kill can astro-turf into an impressive online community. Cyber bullying, on the other hand, is a lot more common than might be expected, according to Carney Bonnor who runs a mentoring and support group. The statistics are that “one in three people aged between 11 to 17 are cyber bullied, with girls three times more likely. It goes to school with you, it comes home with you, it goes in the shower with you, it goes everywhere you go.”

What this programme shows is that more than half of cyber-stalkers know their victims personally, but the internet has opened up myriad of sophisticated ways of hiding your identity, or stealing that of others, and the police’s investigative capabilities are lagging woefully behind. With the help of the BBCs internet research specialist, Paul Myers, Bacon sets up a honey-trap to lure his troll into divulging his identity. Bacon effectively self-trolls pretending to be someone else tweeting abuse at himself and offering to send the troll compromising pictures of himself in hopes of sweet-talking his troll into contact.

Disappointingly, Bacon fails to entrap his troll, but he does doorstep one of the only two convicted (under the 2003 communications act) trolls in Britain, who is allegedly still at it after serving 18 months in prison. If hiding identity online is the modus operandi of trolling, seeing a troll squirm in the flesh as Bacon and his camera crew confronts him with printed screen shots of his hateful drivel makes for extremely satisfying TV.

If you’re the victim of online bullying, the expert advice is the document everything with screenshots, starve the troll by not responding and confide early on in a parent, teacher or public authority figure. Do not feed your troll or destroy evidence.

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