Internet trolling: What is it and where do Internet users stand?

By Chris Lee

Internet “trolling” is big news at the moment. Trolls are Web users who post inflammatory and often offensive comments and posts on social media, often under pseudonyms. This includes the establishment of dedicated online property, such as Facebook pages, to espouse their hatred. This type of bullying has affected a number of celebrities and led to a change in the law allowing victims of Internet abuse to get new powers to identify trolls.

But just where is the line drawn between expressing an opinion about someone or something online and actually “trolling” and how can honest Web users make sure they can express themselves without contravening any laws? NMK spoke to John Halton, Advertising, Technology and Media partner from Kent-based law firm, Cripps Harries Hall for the answers.

Explaining trolling

For Halton, the original meaning of "trolling" in Internet parlance is posting inflammatory or off-topic messages in order to provoke a response from others in a discussion. However, in recent media usage, the term has been used to refer specifically to those who post offensive or distressing messages online, usually from the safety of anonymity.

“There is no law against anonymous or pseudonymous online communications,” he told NMK. “Equally, however, posting anonymously or pseudonymously does not exempt you from complying with the law – though it may make it harder for victims or the authorities to enforce the law against you.”

Halton said the main law which currently applies to trolling is the Communications Act 2003. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 makes it a criminal offence to send, by means of any form of electronic communications, a message that is "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character". The same section also makes it an offence to send false messages for the purpose of "causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another", or to "persistently make use" of electronic communications for that purpose. The offence is committed when the message is sent, regardless of whether the recipient ever reads it.

Trolling may also constitute harassment under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (which prohibits the use of "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour" that is intended to cause "harassment, alarm or distress) or the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. In addition, a student who posted racially offensive tweets about Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba was jailed for incitement to racial hatred in early 2012.

“In short, the line between expressing an opinion and being offensive – or, more to the point, committing a criminal offence – is much the same on social media as in real life,” Halton said. “If you are just expressing a vigorous opinion, all well and good. However, if you start to make false and damaging assertions about someone; or if your messages are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing; or if you harass someone with persistent and unwanted messages; then you are crossing the line from vigour into criminality.”

Victim status

So if one finds oneself as the victim of a trolling attack, what’s the best practice to follow?

“It’s advisable to keep a record of all offensive or upsetting communications you receive,” Halton said. “As tweets can easily be deleted after sending, it is a good idea to take screenshots rather than simply bookmarking the offending tweet. Asking the person to stop can be important, as they can then no longer claim they were unaware of the offence or distress they were causing. Similarly, on Twitter, blocking the sender may be a practical means of dealing with low-level trolling. Complaining to Twitter or Facebook is also advisable, though victims of trolling report varying levels of success via this route.”

Halton added that for more serious or persistent cases of trolling, victims should go to the police.

“Again, those who have done so have encountered varying levels of success, with some police forces clearly more geared up for handling such complaints than others. However, trolling is increasingly recognised by the police as a serious problem,” he added.

As for social media users, Halton advises that being conscious of how their messages are likely to be received – especially if they are posting from an anonymous or pseudonymous account – is important.

In addition, many examples of Internet trolling happen publicly, Halton explained, through messages posted on Twitter and upsetting or offensive messages are likely to be seen not only by the intended recipients but also by many of their own followers.

“Those bystanders can play a valuable role in challenging the troll’s behaviour, offering support to the recipient and helping to ensure that evidence of unacceptable messages is preserved,” Halton concluded. “Such ‘self-policing’ isn’t the answer to the most serious cases, but can help create an atmosphere in which the line between acceptable and unacceptable conduct online is more widely known.”

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