Internet trolling is no laughing matter
The practice of “trolling” – leaving calculatedly inflammatory comments on public forums – has long been a feature of internet discourse. Usually “troll” comments are malicious without being criminal: an example might be going onto a cat-lovers forum and announcing you regularly pluck the hair off your Siamese. Trollers tend to post something troglodytic, then sit back and watch normal forum users round on their pseudonym with fury. A much darker side to this exercise has come to the fore after an internet troll was jailed yesterday for posting vile messages on Facebook tribute pages set up to commemorate dead teenagers. Sean Duffy, 25, was given a sentence of 18 months after police traced the abusive messages to fake email addresses he had created.
His victims included Natasha MacBryde, a 15-year-old who committed suicide after receiving a message from an anonymous bully on social networking site Formspring. The day after her death, Duffy wrote “I fell asleep on the track lolz” on a page created by McBryde’s brother. Five days later he posted a Youtube video, Tasha the Tank Engine, which featured an image McBryde’s head spliced onto Thomas the Tank Engine. Duffy next created a page entitled RIP Lauren Drew after the 14 year old died from an epilepsy attack. He added images entitled Lauren’s rotting body and impersonated the dead teenager: “Help me Mummy, it’s hot in Hell”. One of Lauren’s friends was blamed for the hate campaign and took a drug overdose. Also trolled by Duffy were Hayley Bates, 16, who died in a car crash, and Jordan Cooper, 14, who was stabbed to death by his uncle.
The court heard that Duffy suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and leads a “miserable existence”, binge-drinking alone at home. He did not know any of his victims, and has received a five-year ASBO prohibiting him from visiting social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter and Bebo.
- Not criminal. Toby Young, who has himself been a victim of what he terms cyber-bullying, wrote in The Daily Telegraph that he felt a custodial sentence to be the wrong answer. Duffy was prosecuted under the 1988 Malicious Communications Act that makes it illegal to for someone to send a grossly indecent or offensive letter. “As it stands”, wrote Young, “the legislation is an affront to free speech.” Who’s to judge what is grossly offensive?
- Nowhere to hide. Det Ch Insp James Hahn, of Thames Valley police, stated that: “Malicious communication through social networking is a new phenomenon and unfortunately shows how technology can be abused. However, our investigation shows that offenders cannot hide behind their computer screens.” Natasha Macbryde’s father, Anthony, also hoped that Duffy’s sentencing would impact on other trollers: it “shows other trollers that they are not anonymous and they will be caught if they continue their vile games.”
- Why do they do it? Fevzi Turkalp, a technology expert from gadgetdetective, argued that it is the veneer of anonymity that encourages trolling. “People feel protected by anonymity and the true nature of people comes to the fore,” he said.
- Worrying Trend. The BBC ran the story, adding that a rise in cyber-attacks on teachers has been observed. Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, the largest teachers’ union, said pupils had started to use “sophisticated tools” against teachers. “Misuse of internet sites can destroy teachers’ confidence and professional reputation and provide yet another vehicle for false allegations against staff. New cases of abuse, harassment and humiliation are emerging all the time.”