Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me. The truth about trolls in our modern age.

There has been much debate from vloggers this week on trolls. What is the definition of a troll? What has the Government done to stop trolling? Are vloggers really being targeted and why are the real victims of trolling being largely ignored?

When I used to work in Senior Management in schools, I had to deal with incidents of ‘bullying’ on a regular basis. I have inserted the word in inverted commas, because frequently parents would use this word. However, the times that I encountered genuine bullying were surprisingly rare. It is hard as a parent, not to believe every word that your child tells you. Furthermore, I sometimes felt that parents would use the term ‘bullying’ for no other reason than it seemed to be the latest word to define friendship issues. When I investigated these incidents, I would often discover that they were what I termed, ’six of one and half a dozen of the other ‘incidents. Kids would fall out, say nasty things to each other and then a few days later, they would be friends again.

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For a time, I was a housemistress in boarding schools. I looked after both boys and girls and there was a clear distinction between how boys and girls would treat each other. If boys fell out, you would often find they had a brief physical fight and moved on quickly. Girls would sulk for days, even weeks.

I went to an all-girls’ school. My best friend from an early age, was someone who I am still close to now. After a couple of blissful years of friendship, based upon our mutual love of Duran Duran and the Royal Family, we had a huge falling out. It was over something incredibly trivial – most probably over boys. We were both intelligent and capable of being venomously bitchy to each other. After a while, we realised that we were so unpleasant to each other as enemies, that we were much better off as friends. When my friend and I said deliberately hurtful comments to each other, it was not bullying. It was part of our education in dealing with friendships and falling-out.

I used to explain to parents that these incidents were examples of children learning how to navigate relationships. Children struggle with the idea that they will meet people in life that they simply do not like or get on with. Children want to see the good in everything and so when they fall out with their friends, it can become a steep learning curve. Children wear their emotions on their sleeve, and they have yet to learn the subtle intricacies of social interaction. When they fall out, you see so many examples of downright malicious and over personal comments – mainly based on physical appearance.

To me, bullying is more of a psychological torture, of someone who the bully feels is weaker than them. The bullying offender is frequently troubled themselves. The reason for the bullying is often found in the bully’s unhappy background and it is often learned behaviour from experiencing bullying themselves. There is nothing that you can do to stop a bully because they will be an expert in deceit and deviousness. Bullies ruin lives and the treatment of their victims takes place systematically over a long period of time. They delight in seeing their victim fearful. If the victim does not respond to the bully, then the bully fails to gain any delight in bullying and thus, they will probably cease.

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It is also paramount to distinguish the difference between bullying and teasing. Everyone will be teased at school from their friends and classmates. My name was Straw and I had ginger hair. I was called Worzel Gummidge, Ginge, Duracell, Betty etc. That is not bullying, rather it is normal childhood behaviour. I was also called names by my brother. I had a scar on my face, and he thought it was hilarious to call me Arthur Scargill for a time. I’ve been called things at work and at home. In some ways learning to take the mickey out of yourself is great training for life as an adult, since it means that you do not possess a huge ego. You accept that you have flaws.

I’ve been writing my blog for almost a year now. In all that time, I’ve pretty much only encountered positive feedback. On occasion I’ve had people disagree with me and I think that is perfectly acceptable. I sometimes choose to present my opinion and part of getting better at writing is being able to take on board critiques. If you want to be a writer and have success, then you do need to put yourself out there and write!

This week I wrote an article about a gossip site and how I believe that gossip is an intrinsic part of the human condition. I had so many incredibly kind comments even though I had half expected to upset someone. I thought certain people would disagree with my take on keeping gossip sites, since let’s face it, it was quite a contentious view. However, what I didn’t expect was someone sending me a nasty and upsetting personal message. I read it and couldn’t believe that someone would say something so vile, when I was putting my opinions and writing out there to be judged – not my personal morality and physical appearance. I deleted the comment straight away and laughed it off. I was pleased that it was an isolated remark. I can’t say that it hurt me. I was just shocked that someone thought that they could say that with no further repercussions. This tiny and (fortunately) isolated example, is what we mean by trolling.

Trolls used to be an ugly creature in Scandinavian myths and fables, depicted as either a giant or an ugly dwarf. Since 1992, the word has been used as a pejorative term to define something entirely different and far more sinister. A troll is someone who deliberately sets out to upset people on the internet by posting highly inflammatory remarks. The intent of this online harassment is always to provoke a reaction, and this seems to make the troll feel powerful – much like the bully. There is a huge distinction between someone having a difference of opinion and someone being a troll. A troll is someone who, like the bully, wages a relentless and vindictive campaign against someone.

According to the internet dictionary, Net Lingo, there are four grades of trolling: playtime, tactical, strategic, and domination. A leading American academic, Judith Donath, led initial discussions in 1999 into what defined and characterised a troll. According to Donath,

Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group’s common interests and concerns; the newsgroup’s or forum’s members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings, and upon judging a poster a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they – and the troll – understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll’s enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group.

All researchers conclude that trolls and trolling can be highly disruptive to any internet forum or community. You can see specific examples of trolling in messages that the glamour model and celebrity, Katie Price, has received concerning her eldest son, Harvey. You might think that Katie invites trolls because of the way she chooses to live her life so publicly. Yet Harvey is innocent and vulnerable, he doesn’t deserve any of the trolling, which is a form of abuse.

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Over the past few weeks, several vloggers have decided to speak out about trolls. Some have given examples of deeply disturbing comments made to them, such as telling them to kill themselves or threatening to harm the vlogger and their family. There is no doubt that this is trolling. However, some other vloggers have focused on differences of opinion rather than trolling and these include comments relating to how someone lives their life, what they eat and what they wear. One vlogger mentioned the online profile of someone, who was in their opinion a troll, since they were relentlessly posting about them on gossip sites and it was impacting on their vlogging business. Some of the troll comments that were mentioned, included people stating that the vlogger had a fake rather than a real tan, and smoked. As much as these comments are not particularly nice, they are not trolling. A troll comes uninvited into your inbox and will make threatening comments about you or your family in a highly offensive and often terrifying manner.

At first this vlogger gained a lot of sympathy, especially from fellow vloggers. Sadly, things took a more unnerving turn, when this vlogger’s followers started targeting people who had initially spoken out against this vlogger. I saw some horrific comments. It became very much like something one would encounter in a playground, where your tougher or ‘bigger’ friend stands up for you and threatens someone who has been unkind. It was tit for tat. If you are going to play the moral high ground by claiming that this ‘trolling’ is wrong, what makes you so righteous that you feel that you can then go and troll the so-called trolls? It just becomes a vicious cycle and totally futile.

Like most supposed phenomena of the modern age, trolling is nothing new. Long before the age of the internet, there were poison pen letters and anonymous phone calls. The term poison pen was first used in America in 1911 and the first UK based poison pen letters were written about in the 1930s and became something of a regular device used in some of Agatha Christie’s work. The most famous case was of a man named John Forster, who was sent to prison for four months in 2001 for relentlessly sending poison pen letters to his neighbours. Probably because of Agatha Christie, poison pen letters have always seemed the reserve of parochial communities: the quiet English village that harbours so much internalised hatred and bigotry.

In 1988 the government passed the Malicious Communication Act making it an offence for anyone “to send or deliver letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety”. This now applies to electronic communications. The Malicious Communications Act can be used to charge people for comments made via social networking sites that are “racially motivated” or “religiously motivated.” The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill was eventually expanded in 2014 to include internet trolls. If found guilty, trolls can face up to two years in jail. Sending messages which are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” is an offence whether they are received by the intended recipient or not. Several people have since been imprisoned in the UK for online harassment.

In the Seventies, my parents became victims of a poison pen letter campaign from a neighbour. This person (or persons) sent many nasty letters to my parents’ house, my dad’s work and their friends. It was relentless. My parents kept my brother and I shielded from this as much as they could, and I only became aware of it myself, when another child came up to me in the playground and said something. It terrified me as a child and I only saw a tiny part of it. How my parents must have felt, I cannot imagine. It engulfed their lives and put them under the most unrelenting stress. Fortunately. it ended in my parents’ favour and the matter was resolved. Yet, it continued to impact on our family for many years because the author(s) of the malicious communications lived very close by.

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So, what should we all do about trolling? Are vloggers right to call out these people who they consider are trolling them?

I feel that it is a positive step that celebrities such as Katie Price, are using their voices to instigate change in Parliament. According to Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the CPS are now taking steps to deal with the fact that, “The internet’s not an anonymous place where people can post without any consequences. People should think about their own conduct. If you are grossly abusive to people, if you are bullying or harassing people online, then we will prosecute in the same way as if you did it offline.”

Unfortunately, I think that the focus on vloggers who claim they are being trolled, detracts from the real issues surrounding trolling and that is those who target and troll children. A recent NSPCC survey for 2019 entitled “How Safe Are Our Children?”, found that trolling is increasingly prevalent amongst younger people and worryingly it leads to child sexual abuse and exploitation. Peter Wanless, the CEO of the NSPCC, has declared that, “If we are to keep children safe online, we need big, sweeping changes to the whole internet landscape.” The risks continue to grow.

I believe that we should be concentrating more on this disturbing aspect of trolling. We should have open dialogues with our children on keeping themselves safe online and learning how to change their settings to control who can view their social media. We should also encourage social networks that they have a legal responsibility to keep children safe on their platform. Furthermore, vloggers could use their privileged position and their many thousands of followers, to raise awareness of the trolls who target children and teenagers. This would be far more productive than informing their viewers to ‘have a word with the trolls.’ Vloggers could put pressure on online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to build in adequate ‘safety by design’ protections. Something like a quarter of all teenagers have been targeted online by trolls, according to The Guardian. That is a terrifying statistic and it demands swift and significant action.

And finally, ……….

If you feel that you are being trolled, then it is important to be mindful of the distinction between a difference of opinion and trolling. It does appear to be something of a modern phenomenon that we are at times incapable of accepting constructive criticism without naming it trolling. Too much crying of ‘troll’ too often, will undoubtedly lead to accusations of the boy who cried wolf and we all know how that turned out. Undeniably the most effective way to suppress a troll is usually to ignore it, because responding tends to encourage trolls to continue hence the often-seen warning: “Please do not feed the trolls.”

Secondly, protect yourself and be mindful of your virtual footprint. Before you post think, “Would I say this in real life to someone?” Always be aware that if you leave a nasty or discriminatory comment, then it will come back to you at some point. If in doubt, then don’t. It really is that simple.

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I set up this blog to showcase my writing. You will never find paid-for editorials or affiliated links on this page. I do not wish to make money from my blog and I do not wish to receive any money from the people who read my blog. If you see the hash tag #honestreview then I have bought something with my own money and I am reviewing it honestly.

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