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After to speaking to numerous victims of online trolling, it’d be remiss to believe that Cyberhate ceases once you stop listening.
Then later, because I’m a journalist and nosy as all get-out, it led to me interviewing vicious and committed Internet trolls – in person. For a taste of this, watch my recent video. A warning though: it’s not pretty. (You might feel like a hot shower and a good scrub after viewing it.)
One of the things I’m constantly amazed at, is the ignorant and misguided assumption that targets of cyberhate can simply block or mute their aggressors and go on their merry way.
I’m not sure it is Twitter’s job to deal with harassment. Block, mute, report functions are all that is needed, IMO.
— Persa Verance (@PurlMaster55) July 20, 2017
Take more care and it will solve the problem. Get off social media and everything will be OK, right? Wrong.
That’s like telling a woman it’s her fault she was sexually assaulted because she was walking in the wrong place and wearing the wrong clothes; it’s victim blaming and it’s painfully simplistic.
Firstly, most people have to be online in order to live their lives and do their work. Just like they are safe to stroll to the local shops, they should be safe online.
The attitude trolling is “virtual” and therefore harmless – shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how technology-enabled abuse bleeds into real life.
Secondly, this attitude – that trolling is “virtual” and therefore harmless – shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how technology-enabled abuse bleeds into real life. It causes incredible damage.
Let’s take Ella* as an example. Last year an army of online trolls tried – and thankfully failed – to get 40-year-old Ella* fired from her much-loved job in the music industry.
Like so much cyberhate, Ella’s experience started with a simple disagreement. Ella defended a musician she admires, and one Twitter user took exception to her comments.
“He started having a go at me and calling me terrible names and then he tagged his wife into the conversation – we’ll call her Debbie* – and she just became very aggressive with me and quite nasty straight off.
“She was calling me a feminazi and a c*** and a racist. So I blocked them. And then all of these other trolls started having a go at me and I really freaked out because this has never happened to me before,” Ella says.
She suspended her account for a few days and thought that was the end of it. A few weeks later the trolling started again – only far worse.
“I looked at my phone and my notifications were going crazy. I had no idea what was going on. Apparently, someone had trolled this woman, Debbie, and she assumed it was me and organised a pile-on.”
Debbie started combing Ella’s social media feeds, collecting her personal information and publishing it. In screen shots viewed by Fairfax, Debbie boasts about stalking Ella and urging her followers to get in on the action.
Ella has a quirky sense of humour and in online conversations frequently jokes about being a witch, a time traveller and an astronaut. During one unrelated conversation many months earlier, she joked about being a doctor.
Once they uncovered it, Ella’s doctor gag turned into a field day for the trolls. The cyber army began contacting her workplace on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and by phone, claiming she was illegally posing as a doctor. They wanted her fired.
“I was scared because I was relatively new in this job and I was really enjoying it. I just didn’t want anything to go wrong,” Ella says.
Fortunately, her bosses were extremely supportive and insisted she file a report at the local police station.
“Nothing happened with the police or when I reported to ACORN (the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network) and the relevant politicians. They weren’t interested despite all the evidence I provided to them, and that destroyed me. That just sent me into a downward spiral, which ended up with me being diagnosed with clinical depression,” she says.
(An email response from ACORN notes: “The ACORN system automatically refers suitable reports to law enforcement agencies for consideration and possible investigation…Not all ACORN reports result in police action.”)
The vigilante party started talking about having a moral mission to have my child removed from me, which they used as the reason for stalking me.
With a past history of mental illness, Ella believes she was a vulnerable target. In the months that followed the trolling, she lost weight, stopped eating and started having suicidal thoughts.
“It’s hard for people who haven’t had this happen to them to understand how distressing it is,” she says, “fortunately I know my own triggers and reached out for psychological help.”
Despite Ella filing for a personal protection order against Debbie through her local magistrate’s court, the trolling is currently escalating.
In a recent text to me, Ella writes: “I’m terrified and need help and advice. Debbie tried to have the police arrest me today. They asked me to come in for questioning. I have to take out a loan to pay for a lawyer. She knows my address and phone number now. I can’t afford any of this. She is utterly destroying my life. Thank you for listening. I’m losing my mind.”
Ella is not alone. In my recent investigation for Fairfax, Priscilla told me about how cyberhate had destroyed her life. She lost her job, had a breakdown and tried to suicide three times.
As outlined in a previous article for The Big Smoke, University of NSW academic and cyberhate expert Dr Emma Jane explains the targets of experience “many layers of suffering.”
According to Dr Jane, some of these impacts include victims contemplating, threatening, or attempting suicide, career derailment, financial losses, long-term psychological impacts, and real-life bodily harm.
The multitude of harms was thrown into stark relief of after my recent four-part Fairfax series about trolling was published. My inbox quickly filled up with messages from cyberhate targets – mostly women – who just couldn’t seem to get appropriate help from social media companies or law enforcement.
One woman became the target of trolls after she split from her husband and started writing a fun and innocent blog.
“The vigilante party started talking about having a moral mission to have my child removed from me, which they used as the reason for stalking me. I kid you not,” she wrote in an email to me.
Another woman wrote of being stalked for years: “After we changed our mobile numbers, the harassment escalated and he began targeting my husband at his job and my kids’ school. We have just decided to move out of state and I hope we can start fresh but deep down, I know he will find us…I just don’t know how I can escape someone who is out to destroy me and my family.”
None of these disturbing, real-life impacts of cyberhate can be solved by using the “block” or “mute” buttons on a social media platform.
The vast and destructive scourge of cyberhate and cyberviolence can not be erased by clicking your mouse. It’s high time we stopped pretending otherwise and started looking for responses that adequately address the scale of the problem.