Online hate alive and well in NZ

Dunedin bar owner Benjamin Hanssen, who is an online hate victim. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Dunedin bar owner Benjamin Hanssen, who is an online hate victim. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
People constantly get into trouble on social media sites and if they're not getting into trouble they just might be becoming the next victim of nasty postings on the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.

Cyber bullying is not only for teens - adults, too, can stoop very low. Whether it's intentional or not, when people vent online they can cause damage.

Charlotte Dawson recently wrote on Twitter about a Filipino fashion blogger ‘‘somebody please kill Brian boy . . .'' which was interpreted as a death threat.

In South Africa, a white model tweeted about a black model she considered a ‘‘kaffir''.

Often there is little comeback for victims but, in Australia, Twitter is being sued in a twist of online defamation. TV broadcaster Marieke Hardy is the victim of a ‘‘hate blog'' titled ‘‘Marieke Hardy is Scum'' but she fought back by exposing on Twitter who she thought was behind the site.

Unfortunately, she named the wrong person. She has settled with that person and has apologised to him - and now he is suing Twitter, where her accusation about him appeared.

Nothing is sacred online, as a documentary which screened in the United Kingdom last month shows. In An Anti Social Network, broadcaster Richard Bacon goes after an internet troll - a person who deliberately makes inflammatory comments or posts - who has targeted him with worsening abuse for years, and explores the disturbing world of RIP trolling, where people go on to tribute sites and abuse the dead. Two Englishmen have so far been jailed for such behaviour.

A psychologist who specialises in the internet, Nate Gaunt, says online hate is also alive and well in New Zealand. There is a very nasty but very real underbelly to the internet, says Mr Gaunt, who has had both the perpetrators and the victimised as clients. People often do it because they can, and New Zealand has as many offenders as anywhere.

‘‘We have people posting things about each other, bullying, email bombing, text bombing, text bullying is a big problem . . . people posting compromising pictures of ex-partners . . . ''

Two examples emerge from Dunedin. Last month, online trolls infiltrated the Dunedin Buy Sell and Trade group's page, copied photos of people's children and threatened to post them on child porn sites. Group moderator Alice Hudson said while the trolls mostly tried to sabotage sales and trades, some targeted individuals ‘‘and the things that were said were sickening''.

A week ago, a bar manager considered legal action against another bar owner, saying the man had posted offensive and homophobic comments about him on Facebook. Benjamin Hanssen, of the Monkey Bar, said he had decided against defamation action because it was so expensive. The other bar owner, who had posted about ‘‘faggots'' and Aids, did not return The Herald's calls.

Mr Hanssen said the comments were posted on the man's own Facebook site, which is linked to his nightclub and bar site.

‘‘It went viral and I mean that literally. It went all over the place.''

He said a lesson is that offensive comments are easily spread via social media sites, because one of his own staff picked up the comments through a link, ‘‘so someone liked something that someone else liked''. Mr Hanssen says he is a 40-year-old educated male and can handle himself, but for others with sexual identity issues such attacks can range from damaging to catastrophic.

‘‘When you've got people coming into a Facebook discussion and putting things on like ‘fuel the faggot fire', that's offensive.''

Mr Gaunt says people, when online, can act in a way which they would not ordinarily and this is called disinhibition. There are some good sides to that, where people may try out different aspects of their personalities and be a bit bolder, but sometimes people can be so disinhibited they become hateful or harmful.

Because of the immediacy of the internet, they don't have time to reflect about the consequences. And sometimes there is a sense of distance between the internet and the person and their victim.

‘‘So it feels like you're pressing a button and something is happening way over there and you're not usually there to get feedback.

‘‘That means we'll probably be a bit more willing to press the button than we would to say something out loud. There isn't the same kind of fear of immediate retaliation.''

Martin Cocker, from Netsafe, an organisation which promotes cyber safety, says because you can't see the damage, bullying or nasty commenting tends to be extreme online. Laws exist, such as the defamation law, but they are not used very often. If someone defames you from another country, you would have to take a court case against them from that other country.

While there is no real way of stopping the abuse, understanding the technology helps: ‘‘The more technically literate you are and the more understanding you have of the technology environment the more likely you'll be able to manage a solution.''

Technology knowledge is power and people who have that understanding have power over those who do not, Mr Cocker says.

People are not necessarily nastier than they were, he thinks, but there is an increasing use of technological complexity.

Blogger and political commentator David Farrar reckons the ability to post anonymously removes the shackles of responsibility, because anonymous people do not have to worry about their name coming up in the google search engine.

Mr Farrar set up the site Kiwiblog and blogs six to eight times a day, getting hundreds of comments a day.

‘‘You do get some quite startling displays of sometimes visceral hatred online. What I've found unusual, too, is that sometimes I've met some of these people at drinks and they actually in real life can be quite mildmannered, you know, they're not sort of a psychotic axe-murderer.''

The Law Commission has been taking a look at the adequacies of the law for this era of digital advancement and among recommendations is a tribunal which can award compensation, or the appointment of a commissioner.

Mr Farrar has concerns about a tribunal because there are people who will try to use the process to shut down people they don't agree with, but he does like the idea of a tribunal being able to make findings as to whether something is true.

‘‘When untrue things are said about people and they come up in Google, that is a real problem.''

An independent service which is trusted could give a statement finding some thing to be untrue would be valuable because that, too, would turn up in a Google search.

- Catherine Masters

 

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